This year of 1978 marks an important anniversary, a silver one, for our Protestant Reformed Churches. “What?” you say. “It is only three years ago that we celebrated the Golden Anniversary of our denomination. And now you speak of a Silver Anniversary?”
That is correct.
But this is the anniversary, of course, not of the birth of our denomination. That would be impossible.
However, count back twenty-five years—those of you who can remember, at least—and you will discover that this year marks the Silver Anniversary of a very important event in the year 1953 in the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches.
You ask, “Do you mean the ‘split’ of 1953?”
My answer is: No!
Put in terms of a “split,” this is an anniversary which I, for one, would rather forget. I would prefer not to designate it as “silver.” In fact, I would not have to reminisce very long before I would be in a proper mood, even twenty-five years later, to hang some crepes. For no one who at all had an active part in the life of the churches at that time, whether at consistorial, classical, or synodical level, would care to relive the events of that period of the history of our churches, unless he had a completely warped sense of what is enjoyable; and for the same reason, no one would care to celebrate the anniversary of the troubles, the struggles, the suspicions, the doubts, the distrust, the deceit, the plotting and conniving, the disappointment, the pain of separation, the covert and open attacks on the truth, the vicious slanders of faithful officebearers and defenders of the truth by one’s own familiar friends, in whom he trusted, and all the other sad aspects of that period which are too numerous—and too distasteful—to recall. No one who experienced those years would willingly agree to relive the aftermath of the “split,” with its struggles for survival, its painful attempts to bring order out of chaos, its battle to salvage something out of the wreckage wrought by the enemy, its valiant attempts to bring the life of the congregations on an even keel and to return to the positive work of the church and the positive development and proclamation of the truth; and for the same reason no one would care to celebrate this anniversary from that point of view. None who had a part in these things would willingly pass again through the agonies of fighting for ecclesiastical name and place before the civil magistrate, spending wearisome hours and days and weeks on labors which as such were of no positive benefit for the cause of church and kingdom. And for the same reason, again, no one would care to celebrate an anniversary of these events—not from that point of view.
And I know: for though it was the early years of my ministry, I experienced all these things, along with several of my colleagues who are still living and along with a good many present and former elders and deacons, as well as many of the older generation of our people. I had a part in the struggle, and I witnessed the ecclesiastical warfare, and I saw something of the fierce struggles of others, and I can bear testimony as to the heart-wrenching effects these events had on my colleagues, on our leaders of those days, and on our churches. In fact, as I write these lines, I have to struggle to bring them to the forefront of my memory. I would rather, much rather, forget.
No, not as the “split” of 1953 ought we to celebrate it in this twenty-fifth anniversary year.
But there is another aspect.
Properly speaking, the so-called split of 1953 was the Reformation of 1953 for our Protestant Reformed Churches.
Yes, it was a different kind of reformation. Only too often in the history of the church events have proceeded to that point where reformation has demanded separation on the part of the faithful element and the instituting of the church anew. This time it was, by God’s grace, a reformation from within. We remained the Protestant Reformed Churches. We, through that admittedly painful struggle of the “split,” were cleansed of a large element which did not want to be truly Protestant Reformed. And thus, through this process of reformation, our Protestant Reformed Churches, as they represented and still represent today the cause of God’s church in the world, were preserved.
It is not my intention in this editorial to go into detail as to either the issues or the events of that reformation. In condensed form the history is recorded in our Fiftieth Anniversary commemorative volume, God’s Covenant Faithfulness. You would do well to refresh your memory from that source, or, if you have them, from the volumes of the Standard Bearer of the 1950s. And some day, the Lord willing, there will be an updated version of the History of the Protestant Reformed Churches in which both the events and the doctrinal issues will be dealt with in proper detail. This is something highly necessary for the new generation of our churches.
For the present, I wish to stress only three items.
In the first place, through the Reformation of 1953 our distinctive heritage of God’s sovereign grace and of His sure and unconditional covenant and promise was preserved. For that was surely at stake in the battle. It was not a matter of a couple of relatively insignificant heretical statements, though the ecclesiastical battle came to center on these. But it was a matter of that heritage of the truth which constituted and still constitutes the very reason of our existence as Protestant Reformed Churches. Further, not only was our heritage preserved, and we preserved in its possession; but the Lord also used this history to sharpen us in our understanding of these truths and their implications. Also in this respect the struggle of 1953 was the Lord’s refiner’s fire.
In the second place, history has vindicated us as churches. We are still here! Not only so, but by God’s grace we are strong and vigorous and faithful to the truth of our Reformed heritage. The Lord revived us and made ail things well with us! And where is that element which sought to lead our churches away from the truth and sought our destruction as Protestant Reformed Churches? As we all know, though for a time they tried to claim a Protestant Reformed identity, they soon were swallowed up and lost their ecclesiastical identity in the amalgam of the Christian Reformed Church. History has vindicated our cause as God’s cause. And that “history” has vindicated us means, you understand, that the Lord of history has vindicated us. We represent God’s cause in the world!
In the third place, we must not forget! This is a very, real possibility and a very real danger, simply from the point of view of the passage of time and generations. Have you ever stopped to consider that there is a large portion of our constituency which does not know of the Reformation of 1953 by experience? There are many of our people who are now adults, but who were only children and toddlers, or even unborn, in 1953. Do you realize, for example, that of our living ministers there are only six who were ordained prior to 1953, and nineteen who were ordained after the crisis of 1953? I suppose the proportions are not the same among our elders and deacons and our membership at large; but you may be sure that there are many who can know the facts and the issues of that history only secondhand. And this means that we must instruct. Lest we forget!