Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Controversy In His First Charge

From the day Hoeksema entered the ministry in 14th St. Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan to the day he died, his life can be characterized as one of controversy.

It has been alleged that his controversy-filled life was due to his own constant efforts to “pick a fight.” He was, so it has been said, willing “to go to the mat” for anything and everything. This is a grievous slander and one which will not stand the scrutiny of unbiased men.

One must understand a bit the background in the church in America of which he was a part.

The members of the Christian Reformed Church in the first half-century of its existence were almost exclusively from the Afscheiding. While indeed this movement in the Netherlands was a true reformation of the church, and while several of its leaders were strongly Reformed, weaknesses in doctrine also ran through the movement, and not all the leaders were equally Reformed. These strengths and weaknesses were also present in the Christian Reformed Church. It was not as Reformed as it should have been. Especially strains of Arminianism were present in some parts of it. Doctrines such as the well-meant offer of the gospel, a universal love of God, and salvation dependent on the free will of man were openly taught. In some places there was strong opposition to Christian education, and in other places the urge to “Americanize” the church led the church into unholy unions with un-Reformed organizations.

At about and shortly after the turn of the century, immigrants from the movement of Dr. Abraham Kuyper joined the Christian Reformed Church. They were a different kind of folk. Many of them held to Kuyper’s rejection of the well-meant offer of the gospel, but others had been taken in by Kuyper’s common grace, a common grace which was quite different in emphasis from that of the earlier immigrants. Both groups were present in the church, and the struggle for control of the church was long and sometimes bitter.

Hoeksema, an heir to the piety of the people of the Afscheiding and to the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace in the Kuyper followers, had early come to the conclusion that the battle for the future of the church was to be fought—as it had been throughout the ages—in defense of sovereign and particular grace over against Arminianism and Pelagianism. But he saw, early in his ministry, that the truths of sovereign grace applied not only to the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation, but equally strongly to the antithetical walk of God’s covenant people in the world. The common grace of the well-meant offer was a threat to the former; Kuyper’s common grace a threat to the latter.

Into the ministry in this denomination Hoeksema entered, and through the maze of conflicting ideas he had to find his way, which, he was determined, would be the way of the historic Reformed faith. This brought him into controversy.

It started early. In his very first charge he faced opposition over two matters: his strong support of Christian schools, and the emphasis in his preaching on sovereign grace rooted in double predestination. His steady hand on the tiller of the congregation, however, steered the people of God through many dangerous shoals: those who were not persuaded left for elsewhere, while many learned to be thankful for a man who would direct them in a way consistently Reformed.

The years were those of World War I. Patriotism became all but an idol, and blind patriotism the order of the day. Churches, in bursts of patriotic fervor, put the flag of our country on the pulpit. Hoeksema refused—not because he was not aware of his calling to be in subjection to the magistracy, but because the church’s business was conducted in the sanctuary of the church, and that church is catholic, not bound to one country. Threatened by zealots in the community, he was forced for a while to carry a pistol in self-defense.

One great doctrinal controversy in the Christian Reformed Church at large involved Hoeksema during this time. It was a controversy over dispensational premillennialism. Hoeksema took a leading role in pointing out to the church the fact that such a position was contrary to the Reformed confessions because it denied that Christ is the King of the church, and his efforts were instrumental in protecting the church from a dangerous heresy.

Continuing Controversy

Hoeksema’s second charge was in Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This was the church where my father and paternal grandparents were members.

Here, too, Hoeksema’s life was filled with controversy.

The first controversy was in no respect of his making. It involved the teachings of Dr. Ralph Janssen in the seminary. This professor of Old Testament denied the infallible inspiration of Scripture and brought into his instruction higher critical methods. His four colleagues in the seminary objected to his teachings, but could not secure a condemnation of his views by the churches in their broader assemblies. Hoeksema was finally brought into the battle, even though Dr. Janssen was a member of his congregation. Hoeksema’s careful and thorough work as part of a study committee, presented to the Synod of 1922, was the basis for Janssen’s condemnation.

The irony of it was, however, that Dr. Janssen used Kuyperian common grace to justify his higher critical methods, knowing full well that Hoeksema, already then, repudiated the doctrine. Although the issue of common grace was not faced by the Synod of 1922, it became the occasion for Hoeksema’s expulsion from the Christian Reformed Church.

This brief biography is not the place either to discuss the issues or to trace in detail the history. We can only briefly describe what happened.

Faced with several protests against Hoeksema’s denial of common grace and various overtures asking for a statement on common grace, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan, adopted a doctrinal statement that combined the well-meant offer of the gospel and Kuyperian common grace into one decision. Although informed by Hoeksema that he would never subscribe to such an unbiblical and anti-confessional statement, the synod refused to discipline him and, in fact, pronounced him fundamentally Reformed—although with a tendency towards one-sidedness.

Hoeksema’s critics were not satisfied, and they finally prevailed upon the classis of which Hoeksema was a part to require absolute subscription to the doctrine of common grace or to face suspension from the office of the ministry.

Upon Hoeksema’s refusal, the classis suspended him and set his consistory and the congregation outside the denomination.

Thus, January 1925 marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.

Two other ministers, from a different classis, were deposed as well for the same reasons: Revs. H. Danhof and G. M. Ophoff. Their congregations were also expelled.

These were busy years. Herman Hoeksema was the pastor of a congregation numbering more than 500 families; he taught dogmatics and all New Testament subjects in the seminary which was formed immediately after 1925 to train the denomination’s own ministers; he wrote extensively for the Standard Bearer, a semi-monthly Reformed periodical, and served as its editor; he traveled around the country, speaking in the many places to which he had been invited; he was full-time radio pastor from 1940 to 1963; he wrote a number of books, most of which are in print today.

The enormous amount of work which he performed took its toll, and in June of 1947 he suffered a massive stroke in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on his way to Manhattan, Montana, where my father was pastor and I lived with my family.

The Lord gave him recovery from the stroke—not complete, but sufficient that he could take up his work once more in his church and in the churches.

The Last Battle

It was evident that the Lord gave him recovery because one more battle in defense of sovereign grace had to be fought. It happened in the early ’50s. The battle was over the question whether salvation is conditional—a clear and forceful attack against the doctrine of sovereign grace.Dr. Klaas Schilder in the Netherlands had suffered at the hands of the Reformed churches in his own country. He had been unjustly deposed from office in the same way as Hoeksema. The year of his deposition was 1944. Twice, in 1939 and in 1947, he had come to this country. Hoeksema had struck up a friendship with Schilder and had been influential in seeing to it that the pulpits of our churches were open to him. But, although Schilder and Hoeksema had much in common, they differed radically on the doctrine of the covenant. Hoeksema insisted that a unilateral and unconditional covenant was taught in Scripture and the confessions; Schilder taught a bilateral and conditional covenant. Hoeksema insisted that only the elect children of believers were included in that covenant. Schilder insisted that all the children of believers had some place in it.

Many of the ministers in the Protestant Reformed Churches began to teach and preach Schilder’s views, until the church was rocked with controversy. In 1953 the controversy was settled only through a difficult split, which took nearly two-thirds of the ministers and members out of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Another denomination was formed which eventually returned to the Christian Reformed Church.

In that controversy Hoeksema played a major role—in his preaching, his writing, and his defense of the faith on the floor of the assemblies. He understood that the conditional theology of Schilder and his followers constituted a serious threat to the doctrines of sovereign grace and that the very right of existence for the Protestant Reformed Churches demanded that they hold unswervingly to the truth of unconditional salvation. It was what Hoeksema had fought for in his battle against common grace; it was still what had to be defended, if the churches of which he was a part would survive faithful to their heritage.

God gave the Protestant Reformed Churches the victory. It is true that the numbers of the denomination were severely diminished. It is also true that the controversy was bitter and difficult. But God preserved the cause of the Protestant Reformed Churches, that there might be a denomination which uncompromisingly continued to teach the same truths which the whole church of Christ throughout the ages has loved.

But it was indeed the last battle for an old and weary warrior.

Although Hoeksema lived for another twelve years and took part in rebuilding a shattered denomination, God ended his work before He ended his life. He died in September of 1965 and went to his eternal resting place.

… to be continued.