Just as the life of the believer is one of progressive sanctification, so the life of the church should be one of continual reformation. The opposite for the believer is spiritual deterioration. The opposite for the church is apostasy.
Was the formation of the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) in 1857 a legitimate reformation/reforming of the church? This is not just a question for historians in the CRCNA, but an important question for us in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRCA) who were formed out of the CRCNA in 1924, and who thus share the history of 1857 with the CRCNA.
A list of reasons for the formation of the CRCNA can be found in the history books of that denomination. Dr. Henry Beets lists seven things that were objected to in the Reformed Church of America (RCA) by the founders of the CRCNA.¹
1. Departure from the Calvinism of the standards—particularly as to the two points just mentioned, atonement and election.
2. Neglect of Catechism-preaching and teaching.
3. The use of 800 hymns contrary to the Church Order of Dordrecht.
4. The toleration of Free Masons as members in good standing.
5. Private baptisms taking the place of public administration of the sacrament in connection with preaching, according to the Reformed principle.
6. Admission of non-reformed people to the Communion table: open communion.
7. Neglect of family-visiting as required by the Church Order.
From the above list it is obvious that the RCA was on the road of departure and apostasy. In each of the areas above, the CRCNA sought to return to her roots and to the biblical principles and rich heritage God had given to His church in the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
In the 1840s a wave of Dutch immigrants began to come to the USA. Many of them settled in Holland, MI with Rev. A. Van Raalte. Just two years after their arrival, Van Raalte and his congregation were received into the RCA.
VanRaalte himself was a secessionist, that is, he had left the State Church in the Netherlands in 1834. The reasons for this secession were:²
1. A falling away from the pure doctrine of the Reformed Church, as expressed in its standards.
2. A hierarchial form of church government and arbitrary regulations.
3. The introduction of unsound hymns.
4. A new and dubious-sounding formula of subscription.
5. Unfaithfulness of preachers regarding their ordination vows.
The immigrants who came to settle with Van Raalte were mostly a part of this secession too. As these immigrants came into the USA they passed through the East, where there was a concentration of RCA congregations. Some of the immigrants even settled for a while in the East before moving on to the Midwest. These immigrants noticed that the issues of the Secession of 1834 were also present in the RCA, and because of this they were unhappy that Van Raalte and his congregation had so quickly joined with the RCA. As these immigrants moved into West Michigan, they began to form new settlements with new congregations. The leaders in these congregations then began to express their concerns at the classis meetings, and eventually, in 1857, a group of these immigrants departed from the RCA to form the CRCNA.
The obvious parallel between the Secession of 1834 and the formation of the CRCNA in 1857 is the departure from Reformed doctrine as expressed in the standards or confessions of the Reformed churches. This departure from doctrine was especially evident in the singing of a large number of Arminian hymns in worship. It was as though these hymns took the place of the confessions in the life of the church.
Learning from this History
We do well to learn from this history by asking a few questions. What happened in the RCA, how did this happen, and can/does this history repeat itself?
What happened was this. Reformed truth in the confessions became an obstacle to the acceptance of the Reformed churches in American society. Because of this the confessions were modified and set aside. The RCA dropped the “Rejection of Errors” from the Canons of Dordt, and fundamental tenets of Calvinism, particular atonement and sovereign predestination, were openly challenged and denied. At the same time, the important Reformed practice of preaching and teaching from the Catechism and confessions was neglected. Because the confessions were no longer being used, they could not function in their task of guarding the church against error. The positive purpose of the confessions, which is to protect the church against error, was viewed negatively. Instead of serving as guardians of the church and truth, the confessions were viewed as obstacles and barriers to development.
Obviously, this history has repeated itself in the CRCNA, who just recently adopted the Belhar Confession alongside the Three Forms of Unity, if not as a substitute, then certainly as an alternative that softens the Reformed and Calvinistic theology of the confessions. This began, of course, much earlier in the history of the CRCNA. The adoption of the Three Points of Common Grace in 1924 was a rejection of the Calvinism of the confessions. This developed into the teaching of a universal love and universal atonement in the churches, and to a denial of the biblical teaching of predestination. Along the way, the confessions lost their place and were no longer used in teaching and preaching.
The warnings for us are obvious. First, we ought never assume an attitude of pride or superiority, as though we have made ourselves to differ by remaining strongly committed to the confessions, and as though this deterioration could never happen in our churches. Grace is grace, and we best be thankful for the goodness and grace of God in maintaining us. Second, there is an obvious calling for us to remain committed to the confessions in the churches, especially by using them for instruction and so being familiar with their teaching.
Remembering Why We Have Confessions
When churches and theologians outside the Reformed camp look at the departure and apostasy in Reformed denominations, they are tempted to blame the confessions, to say that this apostasy comes because we are confessional churches. They argue for “Bible Churches” rather than “Confessional Churches” and say that the emphasis in Reformed churches on doctrine and truth leads to personal apathy in the lives of Christians.
While this danger may be real, and we should be warned against an institutional security, at the same time it is good for us to remember why we are confessional churches, and why it is important that we remain committed to the content and use of our confessions. These five reasons should help us to see the value of our confessions.
1. Confessions promote unity. True unity is not external, but spiritual, a unity in faith. Just because someone says he is a Christian does not mean he is one with me in faith. His confession needs to be examined. The confessions provide the standard. What do you believe about sin, about salvation, about the death of Christ, about God? The confessions are a summary of what the Bible teaches and what we believe and provide a standard for membership, teaching, and discipline in the churches.
2. Confessions can help us to understand God’s Word. When we come to a difficult doctrine or passage in Scripture, we can turn to the confessions for guidance. The confessions are written as a summary statement, pulling together all the major passages of Scripture on the main doctrines in Scripture. For example, if I want to know what the Bible’s teaching is on the Trinity, I can reference the confessions and look at the different passages used to support the confessional teaching. I will not find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, nor passages that speak specifically on the “person” and “natures” of Christ. But these doctrines are important and need to be carefully defined, and that is what the confessions do for us.
3. The confessions guard against error. They function as a standard for truth and a wall of protection against false teaching. There is nothing new under the sun, and all the false teachings of today have been faced, dealt with, and answered, at least in principle, by the church of the past. Confessions keep us tied to the church of the past and the work of the Spirit in leading the church into all truth.
4. Confessions lay the foundation for the church of the future. Our interest is not only to be historical but also to look forward—to be covenantal. This is especially important in a day of so much evil influence and when the winds of false doctrine are so fierce. The confessions set a course, they provide direction, they are a road map for the church in every generation.
5. Confessions are useful as teaching tools, not only for subsequent generations, but also for new converts. The confessions provide outlines of theology and use the Scriptures as the source and the support for all their teaching. Using the confessions for teaching, and the catechism for preaching, we remain faithful to the Word of God, and not to the whims of man.
If the confessions are truly to remain a doctrinal standard for the church, we must be familiar with them, and so they must be used in the life and teaching ministry of the church. They must be more than a reference book that we pull off the shelf when a question arises. This is why regular catechism preaching is important in the churches.
We are thankful to God for our Reformed confessions, and we pray that He will keep us faithful to our heritage and to the work of the Spirit through history in leading the church into truth. May God use the confessions to promote unity between believers in the present, and use them to keep us one in faith with the church that has gone before us. And may we remain committed to them, so that the church may be protected against false teaching and thus remain a pillar and ground of the truth.
¹ Henry Beets, The Christian Reformed Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eastern Avenue Book Store, 1923), 46, 47.
² Beets, The Christian Reformed Church, 21.