Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In an article appearing in the Banner, December 20, 1999, Dr. James D. Bratt gives a summary of some of the great “wars” in the CRC during the past century. Dr. J. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College and director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. He has written extensively on the history of the CRC.
Dr. J. Bratt, in evaluating these “wars,” comes to some striking and correct conclusions. His summary of these “wars” is as follows:
…the great battles fought in the Christian Reformed Church over the past century are instructive. They have come in three clusters. In the 1920s the CRC fought over common grace as a way of maintaining a strong Reformed identity through a harsh process of Americanization. This episode was settled with quick, decisive strokes. In the 1960s the denomination argued over how to under
stand the love of God on a North American scene that had become an attractive yet troubling home. This struggle was lower-key and muddier. Finally, from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the CRC fought over the role of women as a way of deciding whether to be mainstream Protestants. This conflict, prolonged and intense, left plenty of displaced members and a reluctance to fight again. It might also have left a chance for reconstruction.
This summary, as well as the final conclusion, is of great interest in that Bratt appears clearly to link the three great battles in the CRC. His emphasis and insight ought to be carefully considered by the CRC. Though Bratt does not overtly take a position on these “wars,” his fair evaluation and conclusion are telling: “If those who stay in the CRC have no reason to do so unless it is to remain Reformed, perhaps some of the best listening could be for the Spirit speaking through the church’s confessions again. That could turn us from fighting words into channels of a future grace.” His conclusion seems to be that in each of these “wars,” there is departure from the confessions. Nothing less than a return to the confessions will keep the CRC in the camp of the “Reformed.”
Let us hear from Dr. J. Bratt himself in his brief description of the “common grace war.”
The tensions dividing the CRC in the 1920s arose directly out of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. As an ethnic church the CRC came under sharp suspicion during the war and felt compelled to adopt English as its official language. The “progressives” in the CRC wished to push the opening further and enter wholeheartedly into American life. Others saw more tumult than triumph in recent events and wished to hold back. Where and how the church was to be in the world was the underlying question; common grace became the issue.
The battle began in 1918, when some professors at Calvin Seminary complained that their colleague, Rev. Ralph Janssen, was teaching liberal views in his Old and New Testament classes. Rebuffed by the Board of Trustees and again by synod in 1920, they took their cause to the church at large by publishing pamphlets against Janssen. Meanwhile, Rev. Herman Hoeksema, the young pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, went after Janssen in his weekly column in The Banner. The progressives defended Janssen in their magazine, Religion and Culture; the conservatives prosecuted him in their monthly, The Witness. When the seminary board gave Janssen a year’s “vacation” from his post in 1921, he fought back with pamphlets of his own. This was a war of words fought out by direct appeal to people in the pew who were connected by a tight communications network and a passionate concern for theology.
Janssen’s prosecutors charged that he diminished Scripture as special revelation and Israel as a people set apart. Janssen replied that his opponents were un-Reformed in denying common grace and that this denial led them to misconstrue his teaching while holding an exaggerated view of the church’s opposition to the world. The relevance of the case for the CRC (“Israel”) and the pressing American “world’ was plain to see. Synod 1922 therefore spoke volumes in demoting Janssen from his professorship.
The Janssen battle immediately gave rise to another. Now the progressives took the offensive by charging two of Janssen’s prosecutors, Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Henry Danhof of Kalamazoo, Mich., with violating the Reformed confessions by denying common grace. Hoeksema and Danhof freely admitted the denial but argued that their denial of common grace was not unconfessional. Synod 1924 found against them by upholding common grace as being Reformed on three points. Synod quickly added that these points did not reduce the church’s distance from the world and that Hoeksema and Danhof were correct in the essentials of Reformed doctrine. But the pair did not heed synod’s injunction to conform on the three points and ran afoul of their respective classes. Shortly after, they organized their own denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.
Hoeksema and Janssen were two of the boldest and ablest minds in the CRC. Each proposed a clear, logical, and opposite course for the denomination to follow in its adjustment to the American world. The CRC instead chose a minimum of Janssen’s principle and a maximum of Hoeksema’s mood. It built a fortress of Reformed distinctiveness where everyone would live together as one, reading off the same page.
The article continues by pointing out the controversies of the 1960s. Two men, both involved in missions, Rev. Harry Boer and Prof. Harold Dekker, debated the position of the church on reprobation and the extent of the atonement. Dr. James Bratt concludes:
Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven, who would later serve as editor of The Banner, remarked that synod’s “mountain” of labor had produced a “mouse” of a decision. But the two sides recognized something more momentous. After 40 years of conservative dominance, power in the CRC had shifted to the progressives. Their victory was sealed in 1972 when synod adopted “Report 44” on biblical authority. Scripture’s truthfulness, the report declared, lay ultimately in its testimony to the redemption God wrought in Christ, not in the accuracy of its statements about every domain from biology to the historical record.
The 1920s battle began with Scripture and moved to God’s grace; the 1960s skirmish moved from God’s love to Scripture. Meanwhile, the CRC had moved out of its fortress into a house with windows open to the world. Yet people were still supposed to read from the same book, even if they were on different pages.
The last “war” is that on women-in-office. Most of our readers are aware of the fact that this “war” has gone on from 1973 to today. Even now, though the “war” has been already won by the “progressives,” the discussion continues. Bratt’s conclusions also are very insightful:
Nonetheless, the battle proved that the church’s doors were open. The CRC had also come to a new way of doing business. Already in the ’60s battle, theological issues seemed something of a professionals’ preserve, leaving laypeople more confused or apathetic than had been the case before. Now, in the ’90s, the issues were not even noticeably Reformed in origin or argument. The denomination was battling the same question of gender roles as was the culture at large and was appealing to similar generic standards. The conservatives called on plain and simple Scripture; the progressives stood against inherited cultural definitions of gender. The process had become more overtly political too, with well-organized networks spread across the denomination promoting either side of the issue. Synod looked less like a deliberative authority and more like a state legislature in late session: wrangling, weary, and factionalized. Perhaps this was the price it had to pay for its passing decisive action to one study committee after another. More likely, it was a sign of how much persuasion or education needed to be done among people who had moved into separate rooms in the same house, reading different books and gazing out the windows rather than at each other.
I appreciate the evaluation Bratt gives—and we too, PRCs, can thank him for that which he gives on the issue of “common grace.” One can admire his concluding paragraph, “If those who stay in the CRC have no reason to do so unless it is to remain Reformed, perhaps some of the best listening could be for the Spirit speaking through the church’s confessions again. That could turn us from fighting words into channels of a future grace.”
One could wish that in this spirit some in the CRC would once more evaluate the three points of common grace and especially the “free offer” of the gospel as well as the justice of the deposition of officebearers by the classes. But this should be done on the basis of the confessions and, of course, Scripture.
In this same issue of the Banner, there is a report of the first RCA-CRC Union Church. Two congregations in Holland, Michigan, one Christian Reformed the other Reformed Church in America, joined together on October 31 (Reformation Day). This church, now known as Maple Avenue Ministries, focuses its ministry “in a multicultural community.” The congregation belongs to both denominations. For purposes of statistics, one-half of their total membership will be counted as “Christian Reformed,” and one-half will be counted as “Reformed Church.” One can only wonder what this will eventually mean for the two denominations. This could well serve as “proof” that the two denominations themselves ought to join together. I suspect that we will be hearing more arguments for such union in the future.