[Editor’s note: This is the text of my address delivered Sept. 27, 1984, at our Hudsonville Prot. Ref. Church to commemorate the Sixtieth Anniversary of our Standard Bearer. This year, 1985, marks the Sixtieth Anniversary of our Protestant Reformed Churches; but the Standard Bearer, which played a part in the origin of our churches, is actually older than our denomination.]
We are gathered this evening to commemorate the Sixtieth Anniversary of our Standard Bearer. On this evening, the twenty-seventh of September, 1984, we stand not at the beginning of our sixtieth year, but at the end. The final issue of Volume 60 has been published, and with the October 1 issue we begin our sixty-first year. The Lord has privileged us to publish our magazine for sixty years. This is something, I think, which no one would have foreseen at the time of the enthusiastic but humble beginnings of our magazine and which many thought utterly impossible. Even as many predicted (was the wish father to the thought?) that our Protestant Reformed Churches would die an early death, so it was also thought that the Standard Bearer would perish and be gone in a short time. But here we are—after sixty years! And this is reason for rejoicing and thanksgiving, not to men, but to our faithful covenant God!
The occasion tonight is a double anniversary, and this accounts for my subject. We are very near to the actual anniversary of the Afscheiding, the Secession of 1834, in the Netherlands. That will be one hundred fifty years ago on October 13 and 14. That accounts for the “One Hundred Fifty Years” in my subject. The other, the Sixty Years, as I said, refers to the sixtieth anniversary of our magazine. And the two are related. They are related not only because the sixty years is part of the time-span of the one hundred fifty. But they are related in a very direct way, both historically and as to doctrinal and church political principles.
To this I wish to call your attention.
One cannot understand the Afscheiding and its significance except against the background of the appalling decline in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands which preceded it. The Synod of Dordt undoubtedly marks the high point in the establishment of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands. But almost from the time of the synod forward, and especially from about 1640 onward, there is an absolutely appalling history of decline. When we compare the church at the time of the Secession with the church at the time of Dordt, it is almost difficult to believe that they are the same Reformed Church.
This decline was first of all of a doctrinal character. It ran all the way from dead orthodoxy and dead confessionalism through pietism and wild examples of false mysticism and a form of dispensationalism to rationalism and its denial first of the authority of the Word of God and then of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith. We cannot now enter into detail concerning this history. But we call attention especially to the fact that during the eighteenth century Rationalism, which makes sinful human reason the highest court of appeal in all thought, found its way into the Lowlands. Under its influence, especially in the universities, reason claimed the sole right of supremacy in theology: what was not logically and rationally understandable and demonstrable was dismissed as unknowable. The miraculous was laughed out of court, and God out of the universe. The possibility of revelation and the divinity of the Bible were denied. Christ was degraded into a mere man. The faith of the church was vain. And the church succumbed to this influence, chiefly because it made the fundamental mistake of attempting to meet rationalism on its own ground. The result was that the most fundamental truths were denied: truths such as the deity of Christ, His resurrection, His vicarious atonement, the Trinity. And they were denied, mind you, in the very schools where the future ministers of the churches were being trained! Characteristically Reformed truths, such as sovereign predestination and total depravity, were not even in the picture. The result was that before long there was even a large degree of ignorance concerning these truths among those ministers who could be classified as orthodox. Rev. Hendrik de Cock is an example of this: it was only as pastor of Ulrum, where he was instructed by others, some of them members of his congregation, that he came to a clearly Reformed position. What we would call modernism, or liberalism, today became common in what had been the stronghold of the Reformation. Christ was the ideal man. Salvation was deliverance from wrong ideas. Sanctification meant to be delivered from bad habits. The truth was lost! The church was largely dead!
Imagine! This took place in the churches of Dordt! In the course of some 200 years!
It is necessary to mention this bit of history because sometimes the struggle of the Secession of 1834 has been reduced to one concerning the introduction of so-called evangelical hymns in addition to the psalms. This is not true! The so-called hymn question was indeed an issue, but not the fundamental one. In some instances it became the occasion of separation, not a leading cause.
Paired with this doctrinal decline was a change and decline from a church political point of view.
Shortly before the time of the Secession the Dutch church had become in the full sense of the term a State Church, so that the State governed and controlled the affairs of the church completely.
Already at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19 there was a considerable degree of such interference by the civil government, as is well known. In fact, there was a considerable degree of such governmental control built into the Church Order of Dordt, though not enough to satisfy the government. It was the latter fact which became the reason why the Church Order of Dordt was never approved by the State and why there was no national synod convened again after Dordt.
But when the Netherlands was liberated from the French domination and King William I took the throne again in 1816, the Dutch church became a State Church in the full sense of that term. The government—ultimately the king—was in full control. Representative assemblies in the government of the church were abolished. Classical boards of directors, provincial boards, and a national synod at the top, all of them ultimately responsible to the royal government took the place of the well-known representative assemblies of classis, particular synod, and general synod. Hierarchy and collegialism of the worst kind prevailed. And, as might be expected, these hierarchical boards were in the control of the liberal majority in the church, as always happens.
It is not difficult to understand, in the light of the above, that the situation was ripe for the suppression and persecution of the faithful remnant.
There was such a remnant. There always is an ever-abiding remnant: God takes care of that! There were people of God in the towns and villages of the Netherlands who still confessed the truth, who desired to keep their heritage at all costs, and who pined away because of the rampant apostasy.
But when they raised their voices in protest, or when they wrote against the heresies and the heretics of the day, or when they sought baptism for the infants in a congregation where they could honestly answer the questions asked of parents at baptism (particularly the question, “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine . . . which is taught here in this Christian Church to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?”), they were persecuted. Such was the case in Ulrum, Province of Groningen, where Hendrick de Cock was pastor. Prior to 1834 he had been suspended for his opposition to the liberalism in the churches, suspended without salary; and he was under sentence of deposition from office. [The story of the Rev. de Cock is interesting all by itself, but to tell it here would take us too far afield.]
That brings us to the Secession proper.
It began with the signing of the Act of Separation by some 260 members of the congregation in a meeting at the home of the Widow Hulshof on the evening of October 14, 1834. It would be interesting to study that entire document in detail: for it embodies the fundamental principles of the Afscheiding. But time does not permit such a study now. Let me summarize that “Act of Separation or Return”:
1) The document states that this small group was separating with finality from the Netherlands Reformed Church.
2) It speaks clearly of the reason: the cause lay in the corruption of the State Church, in the degenerating of doctrine, the profaning of the sacraments, in the horrible neglect of discipline. In a word: in the departure from the marks of the true church, Art. 29 of the Confession.
3) It rejects the suspension and deposition of Rev. de Cock, and calls that suspension and deposition ungodly.
4) It declares that recent history makes it plain that the State Church is the false church.
5) It declares that by virtue of the office of believers, Article 28 of the Confession of Faith, they separate from those who are not the church, and want no fellowship with the Netherlands Reformed Church until it returns to the true service of the Lord.
6) It declares a willingness to have communion with all true Reformed members and to unite with every ,gathering that is based on God’s Word, and declares that they hold to God’s holy Word and to the Forms of Unity which are in all things based on that Word. [A translation of the Act of Secession or Return was published in the Feb. 15, 1984 issue.]
Such was the beginning of the Afscheiding one hundred fifty years ago.
(to be continued)