A comparison of the denominational statistics of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America for the years 1952 and 1954 indicates that something of a very severe character happened in the period between those dates. The Yearbooks of our denomination for those years show the following:
Further statistics could be adduced, which would show in greater detail precisely where this attrition in numbers of ministers, families, and total souls took place within the denomination. But the figures cited sharply illustrate that something must have happened in our little denomination.
By some that is called the “split” of 1953. That, however, is a somewhat neutral term. In fact, it could even indicate that there was an amicable parting of the ways among those who agreed to disagree—something which certainly did not happen. Others have on occasion spoken of the “schism” of 1953. And that the sin of schism was committed and that schism was actually brought about is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, this description is, after all, rather negative. It is far better to speak of the Reformation of 1953. True, in this instance of reformation our Protestant Reformed Churches were preserved intact as a federation of churches; and it was we, not those who departed, who retained and maintained the precious heritage of the truth as the Lord had entrusted it to us from the very beginning of our history. But a reformation it was, nevertheless: a reformation through which our Protestant Reformed Churches were purged and purified and strengthened in the truth.
It is the purpose of this new department to set down in order the story of that reformation. An entire generation of our churches has grown up which has no knowledge by experience of what happened in 1953 and of the truths which were at stake in that struggle. For them, as well as for those of us who lived through the struggle, it is imperative that this record be preserved. For what happened in 1953 concerned the heart and core of what our Protestant Reformed Churches are all about. It is my purpose eventually to bring up to date the entire historical record of our denomination. That, too, is necessary: for not only is the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema’s account of that history no longer in print, but it carried the record only to about the year 1935 (although a second printing was scantily revised to bring our history up to about 1940). At present, however, we shall concentrate on the history of 1953, with the hope that much of this material can be incorporated at a later date, the Lord willing, in a complete and up-to-date history of our denomination.
Further, we shall begin with a kind of catechism on the doctrinal issues involved in that Reformation of 1953; and we shall leave the story of that reformation for a later date. We are beginning with this doctrinal aspect because of its importance and because of the importance of being well-informed about it.
The Doctrinal Issues of 1953
1.What were the doctrinal issues of 1953? In the broadest sense of the word, they concerned basic doctrinal differences between us and the Reformed Churches (maintaining Article 31 of the Church Order) in the Netherlands. The latter are sometimes nicknamed the Liberated Churches of the Netherlands and are sometimes also referred to as the Schilder churches. Today the immigrants from those churches are organized, in the Canadian Reformed Churches, a denomination which has one congregation in the United States, called the American Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. Prior to 1953, however, these immigrants were being advised in the Netherlands to seek admission into our denomination; and we even had a couple of congregations (in Hamilton and Chatham, Ontario) which were made up largely of Dutch immigrants from the afore-mentioned churches. But there were serious differences between them and us, differences which concerned the covenant of grace, the question who are included in that covenant, and especially the question whether the promise of God’s covenant is a general, conditional promise for all baptized children or not.
Secondly, these doctrinal issues came into focus within our own denomination in connection with the Declaration of Principles, a document which our Synod drew up with a view to, the organization of new congregations and in which our distinctive Protestant Reformed position was briefly set forth on the basis of our Reformed confessions. The difficulty was that within our own ranks as churches there were those who were violently opposed to the Declaration of Principles, and that, too, for doctrinal reasons—although there were many who hid these doctrinal objections behind other alleged reasons for disagreement.
In the third place, however, the concrete doctrinal case arose in connection with two specific statements made from the pulpit by one of the three ministers of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, the Rev. Hubert De Wolf. Incidentally, bear in mind that in those years First Church was a congregation of well over 500 families and that they had three pastors, Rev. Herman Hoeksema, Rev. Cornelius Hanko, and Rev. De Wolf. Rev. G.M. Ophoff was officially a minister emeritus of First Church while he labored in our seminary; but he also frequently served as an elder in the Consistory of First Church. The two statements, however, were not isolated instances of heretical statements. On the contrary, they stood intimately related to the broader controversy in the denomination concerning the Declaration of Principles and concerning our differences with the so-called Liberated Churches.
2.What were the specific statements in question?
The first occurred in a sermon in April, 1951: “God promises everyone of you that, if you believe, you will be saved.” The second occurred in a sermon in September, 1952: “Our act of conversion is a prerequisite to entrance into the kingdom of God.”
3.How did these statements come to be the focal point of the doctrinal controversy in 1953?
First of all, there was a long process of protest and debate in the Consistory of First Church. We shall not recount that history here. Suffice it to say that this process went on in the Consistory of First Church until the spring of 1953. At that point—although the Consistory had at one time condemned the statements by majority vote—the Consistory reached a deadlock.
The result was that the whole matter was appealed to Classis East, which dealt with the appeals in April-May of 1953. The classis appointed a study committee which was to report to the same session of classis at a later date. The study committee, however, became divided into a majority and minority, so that there were two reports submitted. The majority report, in effect, sought to excuse the statements by laying a favorable interpretation upon them. A minority of two elders, the brethren R. Newhouse and P. Lubbers, insisted in their report that the two statements were literally heretical, regardless of what the Rev. De Wolf meant by them, regardless of how he explained them.
After lengthy debate, the majority report was rejected and the minority report was in substance approved. Classis East then formulated its judgment of the two statements, specified the grounds from Scripture and the Confessions, and gave advice to First Church as to how they should, proceed in the matter. This decision of Classis East is of crucial importance for the understanding of this history, and therefore we shall quote it in full. This, however, must wait until our next installment.