Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
It is hard to imagine the amount of work which Herman Hoeksema produced. But this was and is true of many whom God uses in His church. They spend themselves in the cause of the gospel and do work that indeed derives its power from heaven.
Hoeksema was, above all, a preacher. It is difficult for us to understand how anyone who heard his preaching could leave his congregation. He was clear, concise, biblical, and confessional. A little child could understand him; an adult versed in theology could be stimulated by his thought. He was eloquent, moving, forceful, and persuasive. The real power of his preaching was in careful exegesis, which unfolded the riches of the Scriptures and brought them home in countless practical ways.
One who heard him preach could never doubt that his first love was preaching. I well remember that near the end of his life, while he was still preaching, he would begin a sermon in such a painfully slow manner that one wondered whether he would be able to get through the sermon. But as he became caught up in it, his eyes would begin to sparkle, his face would light up, and he would begin to preach as one who had received new life.
It was also especially toward the end that Hoeksema began to preach more and more about heaven. When he spoke of heaven he would refer to it as “that blessed hope.” This was significant because, as he was ready to explain, he did not mean that hope was a mere “shrug of the shoulders,” as he called it; hope was absolute assurance which rested on the faithfulness of the promise of God. His “blessed hope” was real and certain.
But his exegesis was always his strength. It is the strength of his Reformed Dogmatics; it is the strength of his many books; it was the strength of his instruction in the seminary. He would debate with us with great patience and longsuffering and would bear with our immaturity with grace and kindness; but he insisted that we bolster every argument with Scripture. If we did not want to take the time or put forth the effort to do that, he would not permit us to waste his time.
He was a man of great physical strength who wore himself out in his work. But he was a man of great mental strength as well. He would never cease to amaze us in seminary with his ability to show the falsity of a theological argument with sure, probing, and few remarks that exposed the hollow character of much theological thought.
He was also a man of enormous spiritual strength. Some called it stubbornness; the Bible calls it steadfastness. He loved the Scriptures, was committed to the defense of the Reformed faith, and would not be moved, no matter what the price. And he paid a very dear price indeed.
He was a sinful man—as we all are. He knew how great is the miracle of grace that God uses sinners in His church. Hoeksema had his weaknesses. He was not above making fun of shoddy thinkers who passed themselves off as profound theologians and made bold but unproved assertions. He sometimes walked his own path without due consideration of those who were one with him and were determined to support the cause for which he stood.
But he was absolutely convinced that the truth which he preached was the truth of Scripture and the Reformed faith. He said in my hearing more than once that he would stand firm for that truth, even if all others turned away. His conviction was unshakable and his commitment to faithfulness was total.
Yet, when he was in the circle of friends and fellow saints, he was jovial, with a robust laughter, a ready wit, a warm spirit of camaraderie. Some never came to know this side of his character, but even within the congregation he showed it in moments of relaxation.
Two incidents which demonstrate Hoeksema’s character stand out in my memory. The first had to do with our seminary training.
Hoeksema was content all his life to teach in a single room in the basement of First Church, a room which was dark, dingy, cold, damp, and wholly unattractive, when with some compromise he could have been an outstanding theologian in the ecclesiastical world and a blazing star in the ecclesiastical firmament. He never complained that he was squandering his gifts when he spent his life with two or three students patiently teaching them theology in what was little more than a walled hole in the ground. The only explanation for this can be a total commitment to the truth of Scripture and the Reformed faith.
The second incident is of a different kind. It took place when in 1953 we had to seek other quarters for the seminary and we were using Adams Street Protestant Reformed Christian School. It was Hoeksema’s 70th birthday. It was coffee time. We were in the teachers’ lounge. Hoeksema was soliloquizing. His remarks went like this.
“Now that I am 70 years old I sometimes wish that I could live another 70 years. If the Lord would give me another 70 years, I think I could finally come to understand the truth a bit. Now I know almost nothing.”
I do not know whether he saw our jaws drop in amazement. I doubt it. But he added, almost to himself, “No, I am glad that I won’t live very long anymore because I shall soon go to heaven. Then I shall understand perfectly.”
It was an important evidence of the fact that Hoeksema well understood that, because the truth of Scripture is the truth of God Himself, it is unfathomable, and we mere men can know only very little of it. He often concluded a sermon with a remark to the effect that he had succeeded only in scratching the surface of a text; and he often said in his prayer at the end of the sermon that all he had done was mutter and stutter a bit about the truth. It was all rooted in that great governing principle of his life that God is God, great and glorious and greatly to be praised.
Nor was he a man that gloried in an isolated ecclesiastical life. It was forced upon him because of his defense of the faith; but it was not his wish.
He would have enjoyed seeing sister-church relationships established between the Protestant Reformed Churches and the churches formed under Dr. Schilder’s leadership if a common basis could have been found in the truth. That enjoyment was rooted in part in a personal affection for Dr. Schilder himself. Hoeksema was saddened by the rift between himself and Schilder and between the churches they represented. He was genuinely sorrowful when Schilder died.
Hoeksema preached in other churches when the opportunity was given him. Dr. Henry Atherton’s Grove Chapel in London is one example. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Portland, Maine, near the place where Hoeksema vacationed, was another. He sought out and eagerly participated in a conference with ministers from the German Reformed Churches of Eureka Classis. He willingly participated in a conference with Christian Reformed ministers called to try to heal the breach. He urged the synod at one point to send observers to the Reformed Ecumenical Council. But he permitted no compromise when it came to questions of the truth.
Hoeksema hated church politics in any form. His firm belief that Christ preserves His church kept him from the evil of playing political games in the church, soliciting support through ways other than debate, attempting to influence decisions by maneuvering, and “counting noses” to be assured of sufficient support before making a move. All the things so important in today’s church world were abhorrent to him.
Above all, Hoeksema was used by God to bring reformation to the church. With the adoption of common grace the Christian Reformed Church chose a path of apostasy which would (and has) led the denomination astray. It is understandable that common grace would receive a great deal of attention in the early years of the Protestant Reformed Churches. But it is a man who leads a sect who never gets beyond criticism of heresy, always and only against things, having an obsession to write critically of others without producing anything positive. Hoeksema wanted more than anything else to see the CRC reject the false doctrine it had adopted. But when it would not, when it cast Hoeksema out after stripping him of his office, and when it persisted in going its own way, Hoeksema turned to the positive work of church reformation. Such reformation was in the area of church government and liturgy without doubt. The CRC had departed from the Reformed line in introducing hymns into worship, and the church polity of the church had been corrupted when the broader assemblies engaged in discipline of Hoeksema. But such reformation was especially in doctrine.
I cannot spell it out here. But as Hoeksema stood for the truths of sovereign and particular grace, he developed those truths in some important areas. Undoubtedly because of his experience in the case of Dr. Janssen, who denied the miracles in Scripture and did so on the grounds of common grace, Hoeksema developed those truths of sovereign and particular grace in the area of miracles. In his Reformed Dogmatics one will find one of the best, most biblical, and most beautiful developments of miracles that one can find anywhere.
He applied the truth of particular grace to the concept of revelation and subjected the doctrine of “general revelation”—especially as many wanted to relate it to common grace—to rigorous scrutiny in the light of Scripture.
But above all he saw the implications of the doctrine of sovereign and particular grace, rooted in eternal election, for the doctrine of the covenant. And here is his greatest work. He has given the church an inheritance of the truth which is powerful, throbbing with life, filled with practical implications for an antithetical walk on the part of God’s covenant people, and, above all, gives all glory to God. It is a biblical doctrine of the covenant which begins with God and ends with God and has as its theme: Glory to God. If Hoeksema had done nothing else but this, it would have been enough.
He has not been recognized by the church world. To know the approval of God was the important thing. Mostly he knew opposition, hatred, and slander, or cold and disdainful ignoring of him and his theology. Records are kept in heaven that are the only ones which count. The sins are there too, of course. They are covered in the blood of Christ. But the suffering, the persecution, they too are noted. And God, who had His own place in the church militant for Herman Hoeksema, has His own place in the church triumphant for a man who fought a good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith. He received the crown of righteousness which God gave to him and will give to all who love Christ’s appearing.