From a certain point of view the ‘reflections’ of this editorial are a bit tardy. They are reflections not just on the history of the apostasy that has overrun the CRC in the last 50-60 years (one cannot be tardy on that), but because they are reflections prompted by another man’sanalysis of that apostasy, namely, that of a Robert P. Swierenga. That analysis was given some ten years ago in a rather lengthy paper (in South Africa, no less), at the University of Stellenbosch Conference, for the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities.
Our justification for an editorial a decade later is, first, that the paper was only recently brought to our attention; second, the subject matter, the present grievous state of affairs in the CRC and what led her to this spiritual ruin, is as relevant today as it was ten short years ago; and third, a reflection on the apostasy of our mother church has its own lessons for ourselves, as well as for other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations that express resolve to remain creedally orthodox.
Swierenga’s paper is insightfully entitled “Burn the Wooden Shoes: Modernity and Division in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.” As the title indicates, his presentation focuses on a generation that became increasingly embarrassed about being identified with its Dutch spiritual heritage, that is, being identified with what is Reformed and Calvinistic (at least, an increasingly large percentage of its members did), and so set out to divest itself of that stigma in the interests of having greater recognition in the academic world and in society at large.
That being the goal, I suppose one could say, “Mission Accomplished!”
But at what spiritual cost?
It is not overstating things to say that, due to the doctrinal errors that infected the CRC over the last century but were never remedied or removed, now written over the portals of the CRC denomination is the word “Ichabod” (The Glory Has Departed).
Swierenga’s paper is a fascinating summation of the main events and names that dominated the CRC from WWII until 2000, a summary of the controversies and decisions that marked the CRC’s ever accelerating apostasy from the Reformed and biblical faith. Along the way Swierenga offers his own shrewd analysis of what enabled the liberal element in the denomination to win the day, in time dominating the seminary and the synod, making sure their errors were never decisively dealt with, nor those who taught them dismissed or deposed—and, in the end, able to see to it that their errors were approved and were firmly established as the new ‘truth’ and polity.
The paper can be found in its entirety online—www.swierenga.com—under the title given above. We recommend it to our readers.
As my good friend said as he handed me a copy of the paper (he himself having finally left the CRC in the 1980s, unable to stomach what was going on any longer) “I am warning you Reverend, once you start reading it, you won’t be able to put it down.”
Swierenga opens his paper noting the steady decline in membership of the CRC in recent years, a membership that reached its high-water mark at 316,000 in the early 1990s, but has been falling steadily ever since. In the words of one of her loyal sons, J.C. Schaap, writing in 2007, “In the last thirty years [she] has hemorrhaged from every possible orifice.” The CRC lost an estimated 50,000 members in the late 1990s alone, and the decline continues up to the present.
What accounts for that decline?
It is Swierenga’s contention that the primary cause is the CRC’s doctrinal ‘declension’ (or departure). In this he is surely correct. But what is of interest to us is what he identifies as the primary cause of the CRC’s openness to this declension and apostasy with its numerical decline, namely, the social and ecclesiastical upheaval resulting from WWII, the fruit of thousands of soldiers returning home with a broader affinity for the ‘world-out-there,’ and tens of thousands of immigrants from the “old country” arriving with their new theological ideas.
In Swierenga’s own words:
It is the thesis of this paper that the seeds of secession in the CRC [in the 1990s] were planted at least 50 years ago. After the Second World War this immigrant church experienced a generational change, both at the top, in the pulpits and the denominational schools—Calvin College and Theological Seminary—and at the bottom, in the pews. The immediate cause was the return of the soldiers. Thousands of second and third generation Hollanders served with American military forces in the far corners of the world, and more than twenty ministers in the CRCNA served as chaplains.
The experience changed many, and on their return they called for the church to open up to the American scene and become more culturally diverse and contemporary. “We ought to abhor a narrow isolationism as the very plague of death to our Church,” declared George Stob. “Our people were afraid of America—afraid of the corrupting influences that might weaken our Reformed character and rob us of our heritage.” It was time, added Harry Boer, to leave our Dutchness behind and become a truly “American Church” by reaching out to all races and peoples.
A few paragraphs down, he makes reference to the influence of the influx of the post-war Dutch Reformed immigrants, many with ‘progressive’ theological ideas.
It is on this thesis that we intend to reflect in our next editorial. This is not to deny there is truth to Swierenga’s thesis. WW II was an earth-shaking, society-shaking, and ecclesiastical-shaking event, punctuated by the two atomic bombs that brought it to its conclusion. But the seeds for what happened to the CRC during the second half of the twentieth century go back a few decades prior to the events of the 1940s, whether Swierenga is aware of it or not.
But before we speak to that, a few comments are in order.
The recitation of the CRC’s history is a reminder of how the liberal element works; first, through subtlety of speech persuading a denomination to tolerate their presence early on, and then, when the charges are brought to the broader assemblies against their false doctrines, resorting to the strategy of delay of action, thus keeping the leaven of false doctrines (and of the presence of the false teacher) alive in a church.
Theological liberals are the most cordial of colleagues as they plead for toleration in the name of academic freedom—that is, until they are numerous enough to take over. Then watch out. They make up for lost time. Toleration is for fools (and conservatives).
Whereas, when they are the minority party, liberals plead for academic freedom and the need for dialogue, and especially for LOVE that does not silence the ‘brother’ who has a different perspective, once in power, liberals define LOVE in a much different way. Now it means you are to be silent when it comes to challenging present ‘company’ policy; now it means putting the unity of the body of Christ before one’s own theological preferences. And now all those who dare question or voice opposition to new doctrines are labeled as guilty of schism, as disturbers of the precious peace of the church!
The names mentioned in Swierenga’s paper are familiar to those of us born in the 1950s and before. H.J. Kuiper, R.B. Kuiper, Henry Van Til, John Vander Ploeg, P.Y. DeJong, and Clarence Bouma are names listed on the conservative side. Names such as Henry and George Stob, Harry Boer, Harold Dekker, James Daane, John Kromminga, Howard Van Til, and Lewis Smedes are listed on the liberal, ‘progressive’ side of the ledger. These are the names that loomed large in the doctrinal battles that took place in the mid to late 1900s for the orthodoxy and soul of the CRC.
These names are not unknown to many of us in the PRC. You can find them sprinkled throughout the pages of our ownSB volumes covering those years, as the SB editors read the various CRC publications and followed (as well as offered their own color commentary on) the battle taking place and what all was at stake. Predictions were made about what the outcome almost certainly was to be, and for the most part they proved right-on.
Interestingly, the names of Hubert De Wolf and a few other ministers who left the PRC in 1953, and then in the late 50s re-affiliated with the CRC, are mentioned as well. We are informed that “[R.B.] Kuiper was pleased to see the bulwarks of the CRCNA strengthened in 1959 by the accession of churches belonging to the ‘De Wolf group’ of the Protestant Reformed Church [sic].” I suppose that could be construed as a compliment of sorts to the PRC, namely, men coming from the PRC and trained under Hoeksema and Ophoff could be counted on as being conservative and knowledgeable.
Regardless, their joining the CRC did little to slow down its accelerating apostasy.
The issues of controversy that Swierenga enumerates are worth recalling.
Swierenga makes reference to the infallibility question that came to the surface in the late 1950s. It began with a seminarian’s paper that proposed “limiting the doctrine [of infallibility] to matters of faith and conduct, but not to biblical statements dealing with natural science [read: creation], grammar, and history.” But the ‘question’ ended with the faculty and the President of the Seminary, John Kromminga, defending the student’s perspective as “moving quite within the boundaries of the Creeds.” In other words, the student’s paper gave evidence of what was being taught within the classroom.
It was a creation controversy that would come to a head a few decades later when a Calvin physics professor, Howard Van Til, would write a book, The Fourth Day, challenging the reliability of the Genesis 1-11account, an account that separates the creation of light on the first day from that of the Sun and stars three days later, and then explains our present world in terms of a worldwide flood.
Obviously, therefore, a rather ‘primitive’ and unscientific account!
And then came the controversy of the 1960s that revolved around the denial of the doctrine of Limited Atonement, stirred up by Prof. Harold Dekker in an article in the Reformed Journalentitled “God So Loved—All Men.” As a perusal of the SBvolumes of the mid-1960s indicates, the PRC membership was kept well informed about this controversy and its implications for the Canons, namely, one of disregard. Swierenga adroitly sums up the outcome of the controversy as follows:
Synod ultimately “admonished” Dekker for the “ambiguous and abstract way in which he expressed himself on the love of God and the atonement,” but it also turned away on technical grounds an overture of protest…. After four years of synodical committee work, the “mountain (of reports, articles, and meetings), has given birth to a mouse,” said Andrew Kuyvenhoven about the decision of Synod 1967. Thus, the professor, despite a “scent of protoliberalism”, kept his honored position but under “the shadow of ambiguity.” Synod’s proclivity in dealing with the teachings of Dekker and Kromminga was to keep the peace at the expense of making definitive pronouncements. This mentality of unity at the expense of clarity set the pattern for all future cases and was a radical departure from the pre-1945 years when heads rolled.
Ah yes, the pre-1945 years—when heads rolled! A couple of men by the names of Hoeksema and Ophoff could vouch for that. To challenge the non-confessional doctrine (theory) of common grace meant deposition and disgrace for them and their followers. Forty years later, to challenge the heart of the gospel, the effectual atonement of Christ and by implication the doctrines of election and particular grace, merited little more than a slap on the wrist, a charge of being ambiguous and lacking clarity.
Poor Dekker, for all his education, unable to make clear what it was with which he disagreed in the Canons.
That something had changed is to put it mildly.
In the 1970s came the infamous ‘Report 44’ controversy. In 1972 a special committee delivered to Synod its report entitled “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority.” Its thesis was that the truthfulness of the Bible rested ultimately on its testimony to the redemptive work of God in Christ, and not on the accuracy [sic!—KK] of its statements in the domain of history and science. The report gained synodical approval.
Thus the doors to theistic evolution and higher criticism were thrown open, as the conservatives plainly saw.
And then came the watershed controversy about women in office that stretched from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. First came the decision of 1978, opening only the office of deacon to women (whether it is the ‘sincere’ dishonesty of the liberals or the gullibility of the conservatives that is most remarkable in these controversies is always difficult to say), and then a decade of fierce controversy following, leading to the Synod of 1990 approving the opening of all the offices to women. And in 1996, the last gasp of the conservatives to overturn those prior decisions was decisively choked off and silenced.
By watching liberals work when in power (having the majority), conservatives could learn much about what it means to be decisive, and what it means to use sanctions. The trouble is, it was by then a decade or two too late.
Swierenga ends his review of the issues of controversy that bedeviled the CRC over the past half century by referring to what has become the hot issue in the CRC today, namely, the approval of homosexuals and their lifestyle, that is, as long as they have committed themselves to a monogamous relationship. So wrote Lewis Smedes already in 1999. And he argued for that on “the precedent set by the earlier embrace of divorced and remarried people [by our people].”
Which, when you think of it, is a very clever argument indeed. Because if one is free to divorce and remarry as one wills, then one is free to enter into one ‘monogamous’ relationship after the other, staying with another for as long as it pleases one, and then ending that relationship to begin another one perhaps as early as next week or so, and so on, from bed to bed. Just so one is in only one other person’s bed at a time. What a wonderful definition of monogamy. If the Mormons had been as shrewd as these Reformed theologians, they would not have had to call what they for so long practiced “polygamy.” Just call it “successive monogamy.” And then claim such is consistent with scriptural faithfulness.
Isn’t a way with words a wonderful thing!
And all this nonsense argued with great seriousness before the face of the Lord Jesus. Let no man be mistaken, it is a serious thing to make the Lord Christ Himself party to one’s immoral follies and Scripture-rending dishonesty. Is He really that simple?
But to such a state of affairs the CRC, at least what is left of it, has come.
How did she come so far? So far down the road of apostasy that she is now in the process of cutting herself completely loose from the moorings of the Reformed creeds by ending any binding of her officebearers to the Formula of Subscription?
Swierenga suggests it goes back to WWII and its aftermath. We are convinced he does not go back quite far enough.
We contend that the death rattle now in the throat of the CRC goes back a couple of decades before that, to the one controversy Swierenga overlooks, the common grace controversy of the 1920s, an issue over which some faithful men’s heads rolled.
At that time a seed was broadcast that has brought forth the full harvest of noxious weeds that today has all but completely choked out the good seed of the Word in the field of the CRC.
This we intend to reflect on next time, D.V.