Rev. Lanning is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2008, p. 92.
One Sunday morning in 1925, two ministers had a race to the pulpit to see who would lead the worship service. Rev. Henry Danhof won. He was not about to lose—not after what he had just been through. He had been branded an Anabaptist. He had been reprimanded by synod. He had been badgered by classis. Repeatedly, he had tried to resign from the office of minister of the gospel. Repeatedly, his consistory had refused his resignation. He had been deposed from office, illegally, by Classis Grand Rapids West of the Christian Reformed Church. And finally, the same classis had appointed another minister to lead the worship services of the First CRC of Kalamazoo, the newly deposed Danhof’s congregation.
This all was simply too much for Rev. Danhof, and he was determined to be first to the pulpit the next Lord’s Day. He secretly made arrangements with the consistory and congregation to begin the worship service half an hour early. By the time his opponent arrived at church and poked his head through the side door leading onto the platform, the service was already well underway. And to ensure that their pastor would not be disturbed, all of the strong young men of the congregation were sitting in the front row with their arms crossed. The losing minister turned around and went home, and Rev. Danhof kept his pulpit.
The occasion for all of this excitement was the controversy over common grace. By the time Henry Danhof arrived in the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, MI, in 1918, the idea of a common grace of God was already being promoted vigorously by prominent men in the CRC. Danhof had publicly opposed this teaching from time to time, but he had been busier defending the truth against other false doctrines: the premillennialism of Harry Bultema and the higher criticism of Ralph Janssen. However, by 1922, it was becoming clear to all that the root issue of those other controversies was the theory of common grace. Henry J. VanAndel, a proponent of common grace, claimed in the July 4, 1922 edition of Religion and Culture, “The problem of Common Grace is the problem in Reformed circles the world over. It is also the problem in our Christian Reformed denomination. It appears more and more that at the bottom of all our controversies the question is: what we think of Common Grace.” Rev. Herman Hoeksema, who denied the idea of common grace, likewise saw that in the Janssen case the “underlying principle is the theory of common grace.”¹ As readers of theStandard Bearer well know, the central question in this controversy has to do with God’s attitude toward mankind. Does God favor all men? Is He in some way graciously disposed toward every human born? Or is God’s favor and grace only for His people, for the elect?
The Christian Reformed denomination was divided on the question. Several prominent ministers had been teaching for some time that God in some sense has positive, gracious feelings for all men, including the reprobate, which feelings are expressed in His material, scientific, and cultural blessings that allow the life of man to develop in the world.
On the other hand, the Revs. Henry Danhof, Herman Hoeksema, and George Ophoff taught that God is gracious only toward the elect. The development of man’s life in the world is not a fruit of God’s grace to him, but God’s providence. Even though ungodly men develop the life of the world, they are not doing good—not in God’s estimation. For they use all of their developments in the service of sin. And therefore the material, scientific, and cultural advances of mankind must not be seen as God’s blessings on all men, or as indicating some favor of God to all men. Rather, they are an evidence of God’s providential care of His creatures. In an article written several years later, Henry Danhof summarized the controversy this way:
Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr., in his “Stone Lectures on Calvinism,” had defined common grace, in distinction from particular grace, which works salvation, as something “by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator.” Over against this, the Revs. H. Hoeksema and H. Danhof, who denied common grace, maintained, negatively, that God is not gracious to the ungodly reprobate; that there is no operation of grace in the heart of the reprobate; and that there is no influence of grace outside of regeneration whereby the sinner is able to do good before God; and, positively, that God’s grace is always particular, for His people, the elect only; that the development of sin follows the organic line of development of the human race; that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.²
The lines were being drawn, and it appeared that the next battle to convulse the CRC would be over the theory of common grace.
Enter Rev. Jan Karl Van Baalen. VanBaalen did not have much use for Danhof’s theology. He especially bristled at Danhof’s insistence that there was nothing spiritually good in the ungodly: not their culture, not their science, not even their marriages. In a speech in 1919, Danhof had gone so far as to compare the adulterous marriages of the ancient heathens to bestiality. Danhof meant that, as far as God was concerned, the adulterous marriages of the heathens were no holier than the animal passions of beasts. No matter how enthralled cultured man became with the ancient Greek love stories, God found no pleasure in them, and counted them as sin. VanBaalen was outraged.
Taking aim at Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema, Van Baalen began a pamphlet war. In his writings, he accused all who denied common grace of being Anabaptists. According to his logic, those who deny God’s grace to the ungodly must also deny that there is anything good or useful in the scientific and cultural products of the ungodly. And anyone who denies that there is anything good in science or culture must separate himself as much as possible from the life of mankind in this world: Anabaptists.
Hoeksema and Danhof responded with booklets of their own, in which they insisted that a denial of common grace was Reformed and biblical. It is worth taking note of Van Baalen’s charge that Danhof was an Anabaptist. Henry Danhof’s actions in the First CRC of Kalamazoo proved that charge false. Neither he nor his congregation had any interest in fleeing away from the life of man in the world. They had a great interest in fleeing worldliness, but that is something different. As far as the science, culture, and commerce of the world were concerned, they lived right in the midst of the world, though they were not of the world.
For instance, Henry Danhof had a keen interest in astronomy. He loved nothing better than to examine the heavens by night. One can imagine Henry as an orphaned shepherd boy on the shores of the North Sea in the Netherlands, his face lifted upward in the dark night to behold the host that God had brought out. This was not a boy who would grow up to flee the science of man. He would certainly grow up to criticize the unbelief of worldly scientists. How could anyone with an understanding of the stars not also be in awe of the God of the stars? “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth” (Is. 40:26). But criticizing the unbelief of worldly scientists is not the same as shunning science. As another example, Henry Danhof instituted an English-language worship service in the First CRC of Kalamazoo. Twice on the Lord’s Day he would preach in Dutch, and once in English. A Dutchman preaching in English? Surely this was not a man trying to isolate himself or his congregation from the culture of America. He certainly warned against the disobedience to God’s law that he found in American culture. For example, his congregation heard him oppose the labor union on more than one occasion. But as to using the American language for worship, here was something perfectly acceptable to him.
The whole matter of common grace would soon be taken up by the CRC Synod of 1924, held in Kalamazoo. It is not really fair to recount the actions of this important synod in such little space as we have left in this article. But fine accounts of it can be found elsewhere in our churches’ literature, so we will have to be content with a brief overview.
Several protests and overtures were filed with synod dealing with the theory of common grace and with the persons of Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Danhof. Debate on the floor of synod was long and contentious, especially over the formulation of what would become known as the “First Point” of common grace. Eventually synod adopted a motion that, among other things, formulated the doctrine of common grace in three points.³ Synod also declared that some of Danhof’s and Hoeksema’s expressions “do not harmonize well with what the Scriptures and the confessions teach us regarding the three points.” Nevertheless, synod declared with respect to the two ministers, “It cannot be denied that, in the basic truths of the Reformed faith as set forth in our confessions, they are Reformed, albeit with a tendency to be one-sided.”4
Rev. Danhof, who was a delegate to synod, formally protested the adoption of the Three Points by a written letter. He pointed out that it had become obvious from various activities on the floor of synod that synod was not at all prepared to make a unified, definitive statement on the three points of common grace that had been adopted. Synod had acted too hastily in adopting the proposal formulating the three points of common grace, a doctrine about which it was not fully decided. Danhof also denied “that synod had clearly and correctly reproduced what Scripture and the standards teach.”5 Because of all of this, Danhof informed the synod that he was constrained to “protest formally against these synodical decisions” as well as “to take practical measures against them.”6 What these practical measures were, we shall see next time.
¹ Herman Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America (Grand Rapids: First Protestant Reformed Church, 1936), p. 23.
² Henry Danhof, Weekly Bulletin, no publication information, vol. 2, no. 330, p. 4.
³ For a convenient quotation of the three points adopted by synod, as well as a discussion of the doctrine contained in the three points, see Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko, Ready to Give an Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives (Grandville, Michigan: RFPA, 1997), especially Section II.
4 Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church: 1924, trans. Henry De Mots (Grand Rapids: Archives of the CRC, 200), Article 132, II.
5 D. H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1943), p. 146.
6 Acts of Synod: 1924, Article 149, p. 199.