Heresy trials are always of great importance in the history of the church. They arise out of difficult circumstances in the church's life. They disturb and disrupt the life of the church and keep her from concentrating upon her chief calling to preach the gospel. They bring grief and sorrow into the lives of many and often ecclesiastical separation into families and between friends. They cast long shadows over the future life of the church; their effects are felt for generations.
All this is not to say that doctrinal controversy and heresy trials are not necessary and cannot have beneficial results for the church. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that in the continuous warfare which the devil wages against the church, one powerful weapon in his arsenal is the weapon of false doctrine.l The church, to preserve herself in the world, must fight against false doctrine, also as it appears in her own midst. When the church successfully defeats false doctrine, many blessings come to her through the battle. A renewed interest in the Scriptures characterizes God's people; a clearer definition of disputed points of doctrine is forged; an enlivened zeal for the cause of God's church is found in the lives of the saints.
Yet the fact remains that doctrinal controversy and heresy trials are sad and trying experiences. They are difficult and filled with much suffering. They are trials of faith which bring out the worst as well as the best in men. They are often experiences which the church as a whole would rather forget.
In the second and third decades of this century, over the space of a little more than six years, the Christian Reformed Church endured three doctrinal controversies, all of which had to be settled by the Synod, the broadest ecclesiastical assembly of the denomination. Four consecutive Synods2 conducted heresy trials: in 1918, Rev. H. Bultema was deposed for denying the Kingship of Christ over the church; in 1920 and 1922 the views of Dr. Ralph Janssen were examined, and he was deposed from his position as Professor of Old Testament in Calvin Theological Seminary; in 1924 the views of Revs. Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof were examined, particularly their denial of common grace, and their views condemned by implication when a doctrinal statement concerning common grace was adopted by the Synod. Never in all its history has the Christian Reformed Church endured such bitter conflict over crucial doctrinal issues in such a short time.
The second and third controversies are of interest to us in this study. In fact, not even the last of these controversies, the controversy over the doctrine of common grace, is of primary importance. The teachings of Dr. Ralph Janssen and the disputes which revolved around his views are the main themes of this paper. Insofar as the common grace issue, resolved by the Synod of 1924, enters into this discussion, it is only because of its relationship to the Janssen heresy trial.
It is possible to approach the Janssen heresy trial from different points of view. Writing in the Grand Rapids Press under "Viewpoint in Religion," Dr. Harry R. Boer reflects on the significance of the Janssen controversy for the history of the Christian Reformed Church. He writes:
The year 1922 marks the absolute watershed determining the limits of freedom in CRC academia. In that year Prof. Ralph Janssen, a man of erudition and teaching competence, was dismissed from the Calvin Seminary faculty. He had taught God's inspiration of the Bible as availing itself of historical, political, religious and general cultural influences in the composition of its several books.
The pall that this event cast over the freedom of academic discussion in the CRC as a whole has never been entirely dispelled.3
Boer defines the issue in terms of academic freedom, and perhaps he is correct to some extent
(depending on how one defines the term "academic freedom"), although at the time the battle was fought, this was not a consideration.
The Synod of 1922, which finally condemned Janssen's teaching and deposed him from his position in the Seminary, did so chiefly because it did not believe Janssen did justice in his teaching to the truth of Scripture's infallible inspiration.4 The question for Synod was: Does Janssen teach the doctrine of Scripture which is outlined in the Reformed Confessions?
What is intriguing about the controversy is the fact that those who were officially involved in it5 stuck steadfastly to this main point even though Janssen himself repeatedly and on numerous occasions not only insisted on his orthodoxy with respect to the doctrine of inspiration, but also attempted to show his detractors and accusers that another issue was involved of a more basic kind: the issue of common grace. In fact, so insistent was Janssen on this point that he repeatedly charged his accusers with being the ones who had strayed from the paths of orthodoxy, while he was the one faithful to historic Calvinistic and Reformed thought. For Janssen, the only question was the question of common grace. Yet as often as Janssen insisted on this point, so often did his accusers refuse to deal with it.
This insistence on the part of Janssen could be construed as a "red herring" by which he made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to divert the attention of his accusers, if it were not for the fact that the controversy over common grace arose not only immediately after the Janssen controversy, but actually arose out of it.6 In fact, Rev. H. Hoeksema, a member of the Investigatory Committee and of the Synod of 1922, and himself finally deposed from the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church for his opposition to common grace, later said with reference to common grace:
In the light of subsequent history it was evidently a mistake on the part of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, that they co-operated with the four professors in the Janssen controversy, rather than to oppose his views separately from their own standpoint . . . .7
The subject of the relation between the views of Dr. Janssen and the doctrine of common grace brings up a number of interesting and important questions. Was it true that the issue of common grace stood inseparably connected with the views of Dr. Janssen concerning Scripture? And, if they were connected, as Dr. Janssen insisted they were, were they connected in such a way that they could not possibly be discussed separately? Or, to put it a bit differently, did the Synod of 2922 err when it refused to deal with common grace, but nevertheless condemned Janssen? Janssen insisted that a repudiation of his own views was, in effect, a repudiation of common grace.
To answer this question will involve us in other questions. How did Dr. Janssen connect his views on Scripture with common grace? Why did the Investigatory Committee refuse to become involved in this crucial issue? Why did the Synod of 1922 follow the leadership of the Investigatory Committee and also refuse to become embroiled in the question of common grace? And, after such repeated refusals to deal with common grace, why was it that, after all, only two years later, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church was prepared to make an official statement concerning this doctrine, and within but a short time of four years was prepared to approve of the deposition from office of those who opposed it?
These are the questions which we propose to investigate in our study. To concentrate on this aspect of the question will, quite obviously, set up some parameters outside of which we do not intend to go. Our primary concern in this paper is not with Janssen's views on Scripture. We shall have to deal with them, but we limit our concern with them to their relationship to the doctrine of common grace. For that reason also we are not primarily concerned with evaluating the decisions of the Synod of 1922. Some evaluation is obviously necessary and one can hardly write about these decisions without passing judgment upon them; but it is not our primary intent to weigh these decisions in the light of Scripture. The same is true of the church political aspects of the case. These aspects occupied a great deal of attention in the church: in the periodicals, discussions, and deliberations of the assemblies; but a detailed study of these matters lies outside our concern.
To accomplish the chief goal, we shall first of all give a brief and sketchy history of the controversy. Secondly, we shall define the issues as they were officially discussed by the Churches. Thirdly we shall examine the question of the relation between Janssen's views and common grace: how Janssen saw their relationship; how the Churches saw the relationship; and our own judgment concerning the question. And finally we shall come to some conclusions on the effect of the controversy, not only on the Synod of 1924 and its decisions on common grace, but also on subsequent history in the Christian Reformed Church and Protestant Reformed Churches.
1. Of. e.g., the many warnings in the New Testament to the saints to be on their guard against false doctrine: Acts 20:29-31, II Peter 2:1, Jude 3, 4, and such like passages. Return
2. Synods met every other year. Return
3. H. Boer, "Broad Concessions Tragic, Man Says." The Grand Rapids Press, April 25, 1987, p. D4. This article was written in answer to an earlier article in The Press which carried a report concerning three professors in Calvin College who "have openly described the coming into being of the physical world quite differently than is done in the first two chapters of the Bible." (Quoted from Boer's article, not the original Press article.) Return
4. We will have opportunity to look more closely at the precise issues involved in a different context. Return
5. The Curatorium of the Theological School, the Investigatory Committee, the Synods of 1920 and 1922, along with their Committees of Pre-advice. Return
6. While this point is one which needs exploring, an exploration which we intend to conduct in the course of the paper, one can find abundant proof for this assertion in Jan Karel Van Baalen, Nieuwigheid en Dwaling. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans - Sevensma Publishing Co., 1923.) Return
7. Hoeksema, Herman, The History of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids: The author, second edition, 1947). Return