Another Look at the Declaration of Principles (1)

In 1951, the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches formally adopted a document entitled “A Brief Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches.” The document had four parts, which can be briefly summarized as follows: 1) Common grace; 2) Salvation by sovereign, particular grace; 3) The covenant; and 4) Church government. Perhaps 75% of the document consisted of quotations from the Reformed confessions.

The synod also approved a preamble, which sheds a little light on the document. The preamble reads as follows:

DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, to be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches on the basis of Scripture and the confessions as these have always been maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches and as these are now further explained in regard to certain principles.

The preamble hints at, but does not tell the whole story.

The document was adopted provisionally at the synod of 1950. In the next two years, it would be debated in homes and consistory rooms, on sidewalks and in church basements, in committee meetings and on the floor of Classis East and of Classis West, and in later synods. It would give rise to scores of letters, protests, and overtures to ecclesiastical assemblies—both for and against it. A Canadian Reformed Classis addressed a letter to the PRC concerning it, and a Dutch religious periodical, De Reformatie (The Reformation), editorialized for weeks on the Declaration.

The synod of 1951 spent five days reading the relevant material and debating it before recessing (without a final decision) until September 27. When synod reconvened, the delegates debated for six more days before adopting the document. The delegates were so evenly divided on the question that for a time it seemed possible that no motion would pass. Several motions failed on tie votes.

The synod of 1953 would be inundated with protests against the action of adopting the Declaration of Principles. Obviously, it was not an easy decision, nor one lightly taken.

And it cost. It divided families, colleagues in the ministry, consistories, classes, and churches. Two congregations left almost immediately and transferred to the Canadian Reformed Churches. Division over the content of the Declaration of Principles meant for the PRC a horrific schism, resulting in an exodus of sixteen ministers (out of twenty-eight) and well over half of the 6000 members.

What was it about this document that caused this astounding upheaval and strife in this small denomination? And was it worth the cost?

A Brief History

The history of this schism must be traced back to the roots of the relatively small denomination known as the Protestant Reformed Churches. Most readers of the Standard Bearer know well that these churches were formed in the fires of controversy. Three ministers and their consistories in the Christian Reformed Churches rejected the teaching that God has a common favor or grace toward all men, elect and reprobate. Related to that, these men rejected the teaching that in the preaching God graciously and sincerely offers salvation and expresses a desire to save everyone who hears the gospel. For their refusal to adopt those teachings, they were condemned and deposed in 1925. After their formal protests were rejected in the CRC, several churches, led by Revs. Herman Hoeksema and George M. Ophoff, federated in 1926 as the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.

The Reformed confessions (Three Forms of Unity) formed the foundation of these churches, with an emphasis on sovereign, particular grace, the antithesis, and the insistence that the preaching does not express a desire of God to save every individual. On the contrary, it was firmly maintained, the preaching is the power of God to save His elect people, and by it God accomplishes His purpose to harden the reprobate who come under that preaching.

In the next twenty years or so, the PRC grew and prospered on that foundation. The Protestant Reformed Theological School graduated about twenty-seven ministers in as many years. Missionaries went out proclaiming the Reformed truth, with that rejection of common grace and the well-meant gospel offer. The churches grew to number twenty-four, with some 6000 members, in about twenty-five years.

However, in spite of this growth, all was not well in the churches. Rev. Herman Hoeksema, editor of the Standard Bearer, wrote in October 1, 1949, concerning “The Standard Bearer, and, for that matter…the Protestant Reformed Church as an institution,” that “the future does not look bright to me.” In March 1, 1950 he wrote, “It is by no means with an unmixed feeling of joy that The Standard Bearer celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the existence of our churches.” A split was looming.

A number of factors contributed to this division in the Protestant Reformed Churches. One can find evidence of personal distrust, even animosity, among members and clergy. Among many, there was dissatisfaction with the small size of the denomination and of many individual congregations. But the overriding issue, Herman Hoeksema insisted, was doctrinal. He wrote in March of 1950, “As Protestant Reformed Churches we no longer present a united front as far as the truth is concerned.” He went on to say that “a conditional theology is being introduced, the sound of which is surely foreign to our Protestant Reformed truth.”

At least in part, the new sound of a conditional theology can be traced to Dr. Klaas Schilder. Dr. Schilder was a renowned and capable preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken Nederlands, GKN). Through his visits to the USA in 1939 and 1947, and through much correspondence, Schilder became a good friend of Herman Hoeksema and was generally beloved in the PRC.

There was a natural attraction of Herman Hoeksema and the PRC to Klaas Schilder, especially after the first visit. Schilder was deposed by the GKN during World War II, in a manner that seemed strikingly similar to the treatment that Hoeksema, Danhof, and Ophoff had received from the CRC in 1924. The deposition of Klaas Schilder and others would lead to the formation of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Liberated (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, Vrijgemaakt). Add to that the fact that Dr. Schilder condemned the action of the CRC synod of 1924 in adopting common grace and the hierarchical deposition of the officebearers by CRC classes, and one can see why the PRC were drawn to him.

Doctrinally, too, there seemed to be much affinity between the PRC and the newly formed Liberated Churches. Dr. Schilder and the Liberated rejected certain teachings of Dr. Abraham Kuyper—particularly presupposed regeneration, but also at least some aspects of common grace.

However, there was a significant difference between the PRC and the GKNV on the doctrine of the covenant. As discussions would gradually reveal, the Liberated taught a conditional covenant that was virtually identical to the covenant theology of Prof. William Heyns of Calvin Theological School.

This difference in covenant theology is related to the Declaration of Principles in the history that unfolded. In the years after the Second World War, thousands of Dutch immigrated to the American continent, particularly to Canada. Among these immigrants were a significant number of Liberated. Dr. Schilder advised that the immigrants not start their own church, but rather seek affiliation with the PRC, if this were possible. So it was that the PRC stood on the threshold of a potential growth spurt of thousands of members.

However, there was a problem. Although both the PRC and the Liberated Churches were established on the same three Reformed confessions, they had been shaped by their respective histories. They expressed some doctrines differently and had different emphases. As a result, both Liberated immigrants and PRC missionaries struggled with the question of precisely what teachings in the PRC the immigrants must accept in order to affiliate with them. The focus of this question was the doctrine of the covenant. Specific requests were received from former members of the Liberated Churches asking what is “bindend” (binding) in the PRC.

Thus it was that the Mission Committee of the PRC came to the synod of 1950 asking synod “to draw up a form that may be used by these families requesting organization into a Prot. Ref. congregation” (Art. 63). This “form” would enable those seeking affiliation with the PRC to indicate that they agreed with what the PRC considered binding.

As a result of this request, the synod of 1950 adopted, provisionally, “The Brief Declaration of Principles,”* and the following synod confirmed it.

It is the burden of this and subsequent editorials that the Declaration of Principles is worthy of “another look” in the Standard Bearer. I say “another look” because the Declaration of Principles was the focus of intense study and debate in the SB in the 1950s. Herman Hoeksema gave a thorough study/exposition of the Declaration after the synod of 1950, in a series of five articles (Mar. 15—Apr. 15, 1951). He returned to a discussion of the Declaration in 1958 in a series of nine articles (Mar. 1—Oct. 15, 1958). In addition, various questions and objections were raised in letters, many of which he answered in the SB. The present editorials will not be as detailed a study of the Declaration as was done by Herman Hoeksema.

The Declaration of Principles warrants renewed attention some 55 years after it was adopted. The Declaration needs some explaining for the sake of those outside the PRC. Some do not know the document exists. For others, it is often misunderstood and maligned. It is alleged, for example, that the Declaration of Principles is a fourth creed in the PRC. It is confidently (and erroneously) affirmed that all officebearers in the PRC must subscribe to the Declaration. The Declaration is denounced as an obstacle to ecumenical relationships for the PRC with other denominations. It is criticized as extra-confessional binding, or as extra-scriptural binding. These are some of the indictments against the Declaration of Principles by Reformed folk, many of whom are closest to the PRC. They do not like the Declaration of Principles.

But do they really understand it? With the goal that those around the PRC may better understand the purpose and content of the Declaration of Principles, it is worthy of another look.

Secondly, the Declaration of Principles ought to be known by members of the PRC. Ironically, in spite of the common perception that the PRC maintain the Declaration as a virtual creed, the members of the denomination, by and large, are not very familiar with it. But we ought to know it—it is a significant document. Herman Hoeksema thought so. He described the Synod of 1951 (which adopted the Declaration of Principles) as “one of the most important synods—if not the most important—that to date was ever held,” because the Protestant Reformed Churches had “finally officially declared what according to their conviction is the truth as expressed in our confessions, especially concerning certain fundamental principles, all concentrating around the promise of God and the preaching of the gospel, and therefore around one aspect of ‘common grace'” (Standard Bearer, Nov. 1, 1951).

Members of the PRC ought also to consider the place that the Declaration of Principles has in the PRC today. According to the preamble, it isto be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches. The question arises, What is the status of the Declaration of Principles? Is it still to be used in the mission endeavors in the twenty-first century? Does it have broader uses in the denomination? It warrants another look.

Thirdly, the Declaration of Principles is worth examining from a theological point of view, because it touches on the doctrine of the covenant. It is not by any means a complete treatment of this doctrine. It does not contain so much as a definition of the covenant. What it does contain, however, is significant, namely, the confessional basis of the covenant. That is to say, it sets forth those statements in the confessions that fix the boundaries for a Reformed covenant theology. That is extremely significant, and ought to make the Declaration of interest to all Reformed believers, even those who disagree with the covenant theology maintained by the PRC.

But the Declaration is of the utmost significance in the year of our Lord 2006 exactly because the heresy of justification by faith and works has reared its ugly head in Presbyterian and Reformed denominations—based on a conditional covenant. As the brief history above indicates, the Declaration of Principles deals with, indeed arose over, the issue of conditions in the covenant.

The Declaration warrants another look.

* The treatment of this history is necessarily brief. More detail is available in three RFPA publications: A Watered Garden, by G. Hoeksema; For Thy Truths’ Sake, by H. Hanko; and Ready to Give an Answer, by H. Hoeksema and H. Hanko.