In the December I issue we began to discuss the developments in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand as they concerned the doctrinal issues brought to the fore especially by the writings and teachings of Dr. K. Runia (at that time Vice Principal of Geelong Theological College and now a professor at Kampen). The erroneous positions of Dr. Runia and those who sympathized with him were opposed, you will recall, by the brethren of the Reformed and Presbyterian Fellowship of Australasia both in their publication, the Reformed Guardian, and ecclesiastically by way of an Appeal directed to the New Zealand Synod of 1971. To gain an adequate picture of the issues, we quoted the entire Appeal. And we found that this Appeal placed Synod squarely before several either or issues and that these issues were of such a nature that the Synod was faced by the duty to exercise doctrinal discipline. What Did Synod Decide??
In the interest of fairness and accuracy we will quote the answer of Synod, as found on pp. 26 and 27 of Section I of the Acts of Synod, 1971, of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. This decision itself, however, will make no sense to the reader because of its references to several other decisions of Synod. And therefore at various points I will insert these other decisions or explanatory notes in brackets. The decision is as follows:
Art. 103 APPEAL BROS. J. KOPPEAND B. VANHERK
See Communication 1. (This was the appeal. HCH)
It was agreed that Synod receive the Appeal.
It was moved, seconded and adopted that on Section 2d of the Appeal no action be taken in view of the pending departure of Dr. K. Runia to the Netherlands.
That in answer to other points raised in the Appeal Synod reply as follows:—
Having received your letter of Appeal, Synod decided to inform you of the decisions taken concerning the various questions of your Appeal. (Note: The following references are to the points of the Appeal as quoted in the previous issue. HCH)
1.a. It was decided not to sustain the Dunedin Gravamen. (Art. 54 of the Acts of Synod 1971)
[Editor’s note: The reference is to the Gravamen against the Westminster Confession in connection with the Sabbath This means, therefore, that Synod upheld the Westminster Confession on this point as binding. ‘Me decision in itself is a good one.]
b. Synod declared that Office bearers sign the form of subscription in the following way:—Refer to Art. 45 of the Acts of Synod 1971.
[Editor’s note: This question was also before the Synod. Instead, however, of simply re affirming the language of the Formula of Subscription, which, in our opinion, is clear enough and strong enough in itself, the Synod took a rather detailed decision. It would be rather confusing to insert the entire decision at this point; we will undoubtedly refer to it later in our discussion. Suffice it to say at this point that while the decision leaves the impression of being rather strong at first glance—perhaps even stronger than the Formula of Subscription—nevertheless it is not so strong, and is, in fact, a weakening of the Formula of Subscription.]
2.a & b. Synod unanimously re affirmed, in spite of certain allegations, that … Refer to Art. 43 of the Acts of Synod 1971.
[Editor’s note: The reference here is to a very strange motion which we shall discuss again later. But on the second full day of Synod’s meetings, and apparently without any overture or concrete case, (and it appears in the minutes as having come completely “out of the blue”), the Synod passing the following: “The Reformed Churches of New Zealand hereby unanimously re affirm, IN SPITE OF CERTAIN ALLEGATIONS, that they maintain the Doctrine of The Infallible Scripture as summarized in the Confessional Standards.
“a. That we maintain the historicity of the details AS THEY ARE RECORDED IN
e.g. Creation, Adam and Eve as the first created man and woman, the Fall through disobedience, and the subsequent Promise of Divine Redemption in Christ.
“b. Furthermore we maintain that the WHOLE TEACHING of the Canons of Dordt (including Divine Election and Reprobation) IS in complete agreement with the Infallible Word of God.
“Consequently we require ANYONE who speaks or writes, teaches, preaches, or counsels on behalf of these Churches to do so in accordance with this statement.” This is followed in Article 44 by a notation of a prayer: “Moderator led meeting in a prayer of thanksgiving for the unanimity and brotherly spirit that prevailed in the discussion of above motion and asked the Lord to continue to bless and direct the churches in their work for His glory.” Ali this, mind you, preceded the treatment of the Appeal. One cannot escape the impression that there was “politics” being played here. Nor, as we shall see later, is even this decision as strongly Reformed as it appears to be. If it were, the Runia sympathizers would never have agreed to it.]
c. Synod decided to appoint a Committee to study the relationship between our Churches and the Reformed Theological College. (Art. 100 of the Acts of Synod 1971.)
[Editor’s note: This was a decision taken on an overture (without grounds) from the Wellington Church. But it is by no means an answer to the specific appeal against the Geelong College for doctrinal and confessional reasons.]
d. In view of the pending’ departure of the Rev. Prof. K. Runia to the Netherlands, Synod decided to take no action. (Art. 103 of the Acts of Synod 1971)
e. This we refer to Synod’s decision to appoint a Committee.
(Art. 100 of the Acts of Synod 1971)
[Editor’s note: The point at issue here was the revised form of subscription required of faculty members at Geelong Theological College, to which the Appeal objected. Again, Synod’s decision does not answer the point raised by the Appeal. Nor does Article 100 give any indication that this matter of the college’s form of subscription is to be investigated. Besides, of course, the Appeal did not ask for an investigation, or study,
but for a declaration.]
We sincerely trust that by these actions Synod has done the utmost in endeavoring to clear away the misunderstanding or ambiguity that, according to your letter of appeal, now exists in the minds of many of the members of our denomination.
We pray that the Holy Spirit, Who guided us in our deliberations may guide you in your work for the well-being of the Churches in which it has pleased the Lord to give us a task. With Christian Greetings,
H. L. Hoving—Moderator
W. Wiersma—First Clerk
D.G. Vanderpyl—Stated Clerk
Thus far the synodical reply to the Appeal. Significantly, in Article 104 there is again notice of a prayer of thanksgiving: “The Moderator led meeting in prayer of thanks to God for guidance and unanimity in the Synod.” While one may hesitate to criticize prayers, nevertheless I do not like these special prayers, especially when the framers of this answer to the Appeal knew very well both that they were not dealing honestly with the Appeal and knew that as far as the appealing brethren were concerned they surely were not creating any unanimity.
A Break-down of Doctrinal Discipline
Thus I would characterize the reply to the Appeal quoted above.
Is it not true that Dr. Runia was leaving for the Netherlands? Besides, could it not be argued that Dr. Runia was not even subject to any decisions of the New Zealand churches, seeing that Geelong is not a denominational school and seeing that Runia himself belonged to the Australian church? Moreover, can it not be argued that in some of the decisions quoted above and referred to in the reply to the Appeal the Synod took a fairly strong, positive stand? Besides, in the Runia matters could it not be argued that the Synod took no stand whatsoever? And therefore should not the appellants and the other brethren of the Fellowship acquiesce in the above decision, and even be somewhat satisfied with it?
I must confess that this was my first reaction when I read these decisions and certain other decisions in the Acts. I thought to myself, “Not so bad! There are surely less conservative decisions taken by Reformed church communions nowadays.”
But when I began to examine the decision a little more carefully and to look at it in close conjunction not only with the Appeal but also in connection with the entire controversy “down under,” and when I received the benefit of certain other data which give the lie to the above decision, I came to a different conclusion, namely, that there was and is a very serious breakdown of doctrinal discipline in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and that essentially the Synod rejected this appeal altogether.
Why did I reach that conclusion?
In the first place, let me make it plain that there was no issue of discipline of Dr. Runia in the narrower sense of the word. This, of course, would be out of the question now because Dr. Runia, I presume, is a member of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. But even before his departure, he was not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the New Zealand churches. Everyone understands that. As a professor he was under the jurisdiction of the Board of Governors of Geelong College. And as a church member he was under the jurisdiction of the Reformed Church of Australia. However:
1) The New Zealand churches very definitely, as supporting churches, have a stake in Geelong College and in what is taught there and in the orthodoxy of the faculty members there. No one can deny this.
2) The New Zealand churches have fraternal relations with both the churches in Australia and in the Netherlands. It surely is not very brotherly to take the attitude, as it were, “Well, we’re rid of Runia and therefore rid of the problem; let the other churches wrestle with it if they want to.” And, by the way, as we shall see later, they did not take this attitude; this was but an excuse for not facing the issues of the appeal. Actually they sent Runia away with their blessings!
3) The New Zealand churches had and have their students, i.e., future ministers, trained at Geelong. There was every reason also from this point of view to be concerned about what was taught at the college, therefore. For there is no more sure way to corrupt the churches than to send wrongly educated ministers into the churches.
In the second place, the Synod was confronted very definitely by a concrete case. And that concrete case involved serious doctrinal and confessional matters. The fact that Dr. Runia was departing for the Netherlands did not change that fact whatsoever. The fact was that these errors of Runia had been publicly taught in the churches. The fact was that there was a complaint before Synod about these errors, a complaint which, if you study it, was well-grounded. The fact was that the fundamental issue was not Dr. Runia’s person, or even his office. No, the fundamental issue was the errors which Dr. Runia taught and which the Board of Governors of Geelong had refused to condemn. Those errors were a matter of record—also for the New Zealand churches. And Dr. Runia’s departure did not change that record one iota. In fact, one stands rather amazed at the naivete of Synod’s decision; or was it not so naive after all? Did they not ask the question which they might expect the appellants to ask, namely: how does Runia’s departure free us from the responsibility to pass judgment on these important doctrinal matters which confront us? Or did they deliberately think that this was an easy way out of a knotty problem?
In the third place, there is the fact that Dr. Runia was not the only one who held the errors mentioned in the appeal. It is a matter of record that there were also officebearers in the New Zealand churches who sympathized with Runia and who condemned the opposition of the brethren of the Fellowship and the Reformed Guardian. There was even controversy about some of these matters at the level of sessions (consistories) and presbyteries (classes). Moreover, the Dunedin Gravamen about the Sabbath was a direct result of Runia’s propaganda about this same subject.
In the fourth place, I must point out that there very really was personal discipline at stake in this Appeal. We must not forget that the brethren Koppe and Van Herk and van Rij were under discipline as officebearers exactly because of their opposition to Runia. They were falsely accused of sins which would make them worthy of suspension and deposition; and the attempt was made to accomplish such suspension and deposition. They were accused of slandering Runia and o mutiny in the churches. And these accusations were brought against them not only by their own sessions but also by other sessions, and individuals, both in New Zealand and in Australia! This aspect of the case was also before Synod by way of personal appeals. But naturally, in the light of the above answer to the doctrinal Appeal, Synod did not adjudicate these personal cases specifically. But there was indeed discipline at stake here! If not Runia’s discipline, then the discipline of Runia’s opponents.
But what about those more positive decisions?
First of all, careful analysis will show that they are not as good as they seem to be at first glance, especially not in the light of Synod’s failure to adjudicate the matters of doctrinal error. This is plain, is it not? It is all well and good to re-affirm the confessions in apparently strong language and to require everyone to abide by them in general. And the same is true of the Formula of Subscription. But what does it all mean when a Synod refuses to apply specifically what it asserts in general? Actions speak louder than words in such a case.
More importantly, in the second place, the real test of doctrinal soundness lies exactly in the question whether churches are willing to condemn specific false teachings when they are confronted by these in a concrete case. This test the Reformed Churches of New Zealand faced—and failed wretchedly. This can only mean that the churches did not have the courage of their claimed convictions. It can only mean that Runia’s sympathizers in the churches will feel themselves safe, are allowed to continue to teach as Runia taught, will eventually grow stronger and bolder, and will finally take over completely in the churches.
This is why I call this a break down of doctrinal discipline.
And in the light of the fact that fundamental Reformed truths are at stake and the fact that these brethren carried their case to the broadest ecclesiastical gathering, I can fully understand that they cannot continue under the ecclesiastical roof of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, but feel that they are called to reformation by separation.
One concluding fact. The New Zealand churches gave the lie to their own decision. After declaring that they would take no action about the errors of Dr. Runia, they nevertheless did take action—in another way. They sent Runia a very commendatory farewell letter in which, among other things, they called him a “champion for the Reformed faith.”
There you have it!
A man may deny reprobation. He may openly contradict the confessions. He may contradict the doctrine of Holy Scripture. When confronted by a concrete case, the Synod says, “We will say nothing about it; the man is leaving for the Netherlands.” But when the concrete case is safely shunted aside, then turn around and praise such a man publicly as a champion of the Reformed faith!
This is anything but honest; and it is anything but Reformed!