A significant anniversary is upon us. On October 3, 2011, the Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Declaration) will be sixty years old. As is typical at anniversaries, we will reminisce about the life of this important friend of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). It is fitting as well that this reminiscence be done in the Standard Bearer (SB). The SB and the Declaration have always been close friends. When its friend was attacked, the SB faithfully defended her. When its friend triumphed, the SB rejoiced with her. And now on her sixtieth anniversary it is fitting that the SB celebrate her. In the opening editorial of the twenty-sixth volume of the SB, Rev. Herman Hoeksema wrote a line full of foreboding: “The future does not look bright to me” (26.1:6). The year was 1949. The clouds of controversy had gathered. The controversy over a general promise of God in the covenant to all the baptized was raging in the PRC, and on the pages of the SB in particular. Indeed, in a subsequent editorial—the beginning of a crucial series on the unconditional promise of God in the covenant, “As to Conditions”—Rev. Hoeksema indicated that the controversy had been going on for over a year (26.2:28).
In those ominous words, Rev. Herman Hoeksema was right. Within four years the denomination of the PRC, barely twenty-eight years of age, would be rent by schism—severe, painful, consuming schism. She was cut in half. And that was only the end result of a long battle that had been carried on in writing, preaching, and at the denominational assemblies.
One wonders quietly while he is perusing this history if the current refusal decisively to condemn the root errors of the Federal Vision is not due in large part to the understanding of the costs this would entail, and the complete unwillingness to pay them. Indeed, Hoeksema himself exposed this issue in the controversy over the Declaration. About those who caused schism in the churches, he asked, “Why did they repudiate and reject it [the Declaration]? My answer is: not as a matter of principle, but because they were not satisfied…that, as churches, we were small. They wanted to become big, and in order to grow outwardly they were willing to compromise and to deny the truth” (34.11:245).
It was not so with the valiant defenders of the truth at that time. They did not hesitate. The truth was at stake. As Augustus Toplady said, and whom the SB quoted in the issue that broke the news of the split in PRC, “It is in the church, as it is with nations: war must sometimes be carried on, in order to establish a sound and durable peace at last” (29.21:500).
Prior to the schism of 1953, the war carried on within the PRC revolved around the Declaration. Some, indeed many, blamed the schism on the Declaration adopted by the 1951 Synod of the PRC.
The Declaration over the course of its sixty-year life received its share of harsh criticism. It is there on the pages of the SB for all to read. The Declaration’s opponents spared no criticism to discredit it. It was grievously wounded in the house of its supposed friends. Loudly they proclaimed that they had no problem with its content, but want it they did not.
Even prior to the events of 1953, one critic, Rev. B. Kok, wrote about the Declaration, “This action has been, and if God does not graciously forbid, will be the cause of dissension and schism in our churches” (27.7:155).
Hoeksema answered Kok’s charge immediately. “The Declaration is entirely based upon the Three Forms of Unity. It certainly represents the doctrine of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And therefore it can never be the cause of schism.” Schism is caused “by those who within the church agitate against that doctrine and against that confession [of the Declaration and the Reformed creeds—NJL] and try to compromise and throw open the doors of that church to doctrines that militate against the confessions of that church” (27.7:152).
Kok’s severe criticism was only a part of the criticism that began publicly in the SB with five questions from Rev. J. Blankespoor: “Is it church-politically correct to make such a declaration on the basis of a request of a committee?” “Is this declaration exclusively for those outside of our denomination, or also for our own people?” “Am I correct in drawing this conclusion…[that the declaration is directed mainly at the Liberated Churches—NJL]?” “Does this [drawing up of the Declaration] imply that our Confessions are ambiguous on these points so that these truths cannot be clearly proven from the Confessions without this declaration of principles?” “Have the Reformed Churches ever set a precedent in making a declaration of the Confessions?” (26.22:516).
The critics would follow that script throughout the controversy over the Declaration and never deviate far from it. Indeed, its critics were fond of saying that they had no problem with the content of the Declaration, but only with how it came into being and its necessity.
That it was criticized at first is understandable. The Declaration came on the ecclesiastical scene in the PRC when the 1950 Synod of the PRC provisionally adopted the Declaration and sent it to all the consistories to direct comments via the classes to the 1951 Synod. In July of 1950, Hoeksema published the full text in the SB in both English and Dutch. The purpose was to elicit the response of the people to the Declaration. Rev. Hoeksema wrote in the SB, “Of course, anyone is entitled…to criticize the declaration itself” (27.1:4).
And criticize they did. The salvos came fast and furious.
The particular tactics of the critics of the Declaration were exposed almost immediately by a sharp-eyed, theologically astute reader of the SB: “He speaks about origin, and intentions, etc., but not one word about the contents…. It’s the truth isn’t it?” (27.1:24).
That was the question!
No one criticized the content. Not one person. Hoeksema waited, he waited patiently. Repeatedly he called for someone, anyone, to criticize the content of the Declaration. He patiently published the letters of the critics in the SB. One he even commended. At last Hoeksema wrote,
The only question concerning this Declaration is whether it is according to the Confessions, or not. If it is not, we do not want it. In as far as it is not let us criticize it and correct it. But the question is pure and simple whether or not this Declaration is an expression of the Confession. But about this only question that is of import no one has written as yet…. A half a year has been wasted, and no one has as yet discussed the contents of this Declaration…. Since, however, no one has thus far discussed the contents of the Declaration of Principles, the Standard Bearer proposes to do so (27.6:124—25).
Thus he began his long series explaining the Declaration. He disproved the claim that the Declaration came about in an illegal manner. He blew the doors off the criticism that synods do not have the right to make binding doctrinal statements: “The question of binding or not binding…has been introduced into our churches by the Liberated” (27.6:124). About Klaas Schilder’s book criticizing the Declaration as extra-scriptural binding, Hoeksema wrote, “The author is either very superficially acquainted with our Confessions, or hated to work with them” (28.16:365).
About the charge that the Declaration was unclear, Herman Hoeksema wrote, “Do not forget that it represents years of Protestant Reformed thought, and that the terms are very carefully chosen” (27.10:221).
Having dispatched the superficial criticisms of the Declaration, he set about to prove that most important point, whether the Declaration was confessional or not.
Although the Declaration was criticized as church politically illegal; although it was criticized as unnecessary, hasty, and unclear, to which criticism Hoeksema responded on the pages of the SB, he spent the vast bulk of his voluminous writing about the Declaration proving that it was confessional.
This was the issue.
Hoeksema himself believed that the most significant action of the Synod of 1951 was not the actual adoption of the Declaration as a form for the organization of prospective Protestant Reformed Churches, a use to which these churches are bound to this day, but rather the motion to declare “that the Declaration…is the expression of the Confessions with regard to some fundamental principles.” “The question whether this Synod will express agreement with the Declaration as an expression of the Confession is paramount. It is to me [Hoeksema] more important than the adoption of the Declaration of Principles as a form for the Mission Committee” (28.5:101).
Having proved that it was confessional and necessary, Hoeksema closed his series defending the Declaration with these powerful words: “If our next synod should dare to reject it, I see no longer any hope for the future of our Protestant Reformed Churches as remaining distinctively Reformed” (27.14:318).
When the Declaration came to the Synod of 1951, it did not reject the document. The minutes of that synod read like a battlefield report, and Hoeksema’s gripping account of the proceedings in volume 28 of the SB is a must read. After gaining the heights on the question of its legality, the hill on which the opponents had planted their flag, the synod adopted the Declara-tion. ‘”It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us,’ to adopt the Declaration of Principles” was Hoeksema’s conviction after that synod (28.3:52—53).
The adoption of that document was a significant event. Rev. Hoeksema called the synod of 1951 one of the most significant synods in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches. “The Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches of 1951 definitely closed its sessions on October 3. It belongs, therefore, in the past, and will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most important synods—if not the most important—that to date was ever held” (28.3:52). Indeed, I doubt if to this day any would contradict that statement. In view of the subsequent history of the PRC and their synods, there were others that were important, others at which important matters were treated, but none rivaled that one for prime significance in the history of the PRC.
After the events of 1953, Hoeksema called the Declaration “one of the most important documents that was ever adopted by our churches” (34.11:244). The anniversary of the Declaration is significant, therefore, because the document itself is significant to the PRC. It was the conviction of Herman Hoeksema, and with him Rev. Ophoff agreed (27.6:138), that were it not for the action of the 1951 Synod of adopting the Declaration, there would be no distinctively Reformed PRC; they would have been “swallowed up” by Liberated covenant theology (34.11:244). The Declaration sets down the raison d’Ãªtre of the PRC.
If the gospel of the sovereign grace of God, particularly applied to the covenant, is not the gospel proclaimed by the PRC, they lose their right to separate existence. If they will not maintain sovereign, particular grace in the covenant, they will not maintain it over against the three points either, a point borne out when those who rejected the Declaration did not join the Liberated churches, but returned to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
Indeed, I would argue that the Declaration is the raison d’Ãªtre of the PRC. That this was also the conviction of Herman Hoeksema is clear from his repeated statements that if the PRC would not adopt the Declaration, they should return to the CRC on their knees.
On the day of its adoption, the Declaration became the settled and binding decision of the PRC, in the words of Hoeksema, on “one aspect of ‘common grace'” (28.5:53).
On that, next time….