Mr. VanderSchaaf is an elder in Faith PRC in Jenison, MI, and a member of the synodical Committee for Contact with Other Churches.
From July 6 to July 23 Prof. Russell Dykstra and I traveled to Germany and Russia as delegates of the Contact Committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Our purpose was to meet with congregations and individuals with whom the Contact Committee had already had some correspondence, in order further to explore areas of agreement in the Reformed faith. We were then to make recommendations to the Contact Committee on the profitability of continued contact. In this article, I will briefly describe our week in Germany. In a future article, D.V., I will tell about our experiences in Russia.
In Germany, we met with the consistory and members of the Confessing Evangelical Reformed Congregation in Giessen. Giessen is in the province of Hessia and is approximately a one-hour drive north of Frankfurt. The German name of the congregation is Bekennende Evangelisch-Reformierte Gemeinde in Giessen, henceforth, the BERG. The founder of the BERG, and one of its elders, is Dr. Jurgen-Burkhardt Klautke.
The BERG began in 1999 as a house church, met in the Klautkes’ living room, and included one other family besides the Klautkes. The congregation grew and now meets in the third floor of an office building, in rooms well suited to the needs of a congregation of approximately thirty people, plus another fifteen or so regular visitors. The congregation includes people of all age groups and families, with the heads of households present and active. Most of the members live in the areas of Giessen and Frankfurt. A few families travel as long as two and a half hours in order to attend services.
The BERG was founded out of a desire for sound Reformed preaching, and a belief that the preaching must be grounded in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures. The members of the BERG want a reverent, orderly worship; and they believe in the importance of the antithetical life. They were convinced that these spiritual qualities are not to be found in the state protestant churches of Germany. Nor could these qualities be found, with the consistency that Reformed believers should want, in other, independent protestant churches. (Independent in this context means independent from state funding.)
Perhaps a brief explanation of the BERG’s name would be appropriate. The full name is Confessing Evangelical Reformed Congregation (Bekennende Evangelisch-Reformierte Gemeide) in Giessen. The word “Confessing” is meant to communicate the way in which the BERG holds its confessions. Many churches in Germany have confessions, but they ignore or deny those confessions in their doctrine and practice. The BERG holds its confessions as binding documents, the truths of which must govern the worship and the preaching of the congregation and the lives of its members. The term “Evangelical” should not be confused with American evangelicalism. The German language actually has a different word for what we understand as evangelicalism. The German word “Evangelisch” is usually understood in Germany to mean “Protestant.” Perhaps the BERG’s name could as well be translated Confessing Protestant Reformed Congregation. The BERG did not take the name Protestant in order to emulate the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, but it took the name “Protestant” for the same reason that the Protestant Reformed Churches did, namely, to witness that they are direct, spiritual heirs of the Reformation of Luther and Calvin.
Our first contacts with the BERG were informal, personal contacts. A member of the BERG by the name of Carsten Linke discovered the PRCA through its website. He subsequently translated a Protestant Reformed book and some Protestant Reformed sermons into German. Mr. Linke also introduced the elders of the BERG to the PRCA, again through our website. The Contact Committee came into contact with the elders of the BERG while Jochen was staying in Grand Rapids. That was in 2005. In March of 2006, when Dr. Klautke came to the United States for a theological conference, the Contact Committee invited him to come to Grand Rapids also. Our conversations revealed extensive agreement in important aspects of the Reformed faith. Soon after that meeting, the consistory of the BERG invited the Contact Committee to visit them in Germany.
(Some of our readers may remember, incidentally, that when the Klautkes were in the Grand Rapids area in 2006, Dr. Klautke spoke at our seminary on the topic, “The State of the Reformed Faith in Germany.” We could mention also that two of Dr. and Mrs. Klautke’s children [their son Jochen and their daughter Elsbeth] lived for a short time with Protestant Reformed families in the Grand Rapids area, and even attended Covenant Christian High School for three and six weeks respectively.)
The Contact Committee, as we have already indicated, decided to accept the BERG’s invitation, and to send Prof. Dykstra and Mr. Peter VanDerSchaaf to make this visit. In Giessen, we attended two services of the BERG, on July 8 and 15. At the worship service on Sunday, July 8, Dr. Klautke preached (in German, of course) on I John 3:8-11 under the theme, “The Commandment to Love.” It happens that the undersigned knows German. For Prof. Dykstra and our wives, and for two other visitors to the service who were from Russia, Dr. Klautke’s son Jochen gave a running translation of the sermon into English.
The worship services of the BERG are orderly, simple, and reverent. The congregation sings Psalms from the Geneva Psalter, accompanied by organ. It uses a recent German translation of the Scriptures that is based on the Majority Text.
The worship service is followed by a time of fellowship over coffee or a light lunch. The congregation then reconvenes for a creedal study. During our visit on July 8, the congregation was studying a creed that expounds the infallibility of Scripture.
The BERG holds to four creeds: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Berlin Declaration of 1909, the Chicago Declaration of 1978, and the Kamen Theological Declaration. The Berlin Declaration is a creed that was written in 1909 by several German denominations in opposition to the Pentecostal movement. The Chicago Declaration of 1978 is a statement and defense of the truth of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Both of these creeds are sound on the issues that they address. The BERG adopted them because they state the truth on issues that are very current, and with which their members must deal in Germany. The Kamen Theological Declaration is a statement and defense of the basic truths of the Reformation.
On Sunday, July 15, Prof. Dykstra preached for the BERG on Psalm 103:17-18, “Jehovah’s Everlasting Covenant of Mercy.” The sermon was well received by the congregation. It was the first time that the members of the BERG had ever heard an entire sermon in a foreign language. Prof. Dykstra spoke a sentence or two at a time, and Jochen Klautke would then translate them into German. Jochen’s language skills are excellent. He very accurately conveyed the ideas of Prof. Dykstra’s sermon. Those of our readers who are interested can listen to this sermon on the web site of the BERG (www.berg-giessen.de\predigtarchiv), where they will find the audio downloaded.
We had an open and honest discussion of similarities and differences with the elders of the BERG and with Mr. Carsten Linke in a six-hour meeting. We had time to become especially well acquainted with Dr. Klautke, his wife Ute, and his children, Jochen, Elsbeth, Eva, and David. The Klautkes graciously provided all of our transportation, and Ute fixed us several delicious meals. We also visited with the other elder of the BERG, Mr. Thomas Tanetschek, and his wife, Miriam, and with Mr. Linke.
It was a joy for us to come to know the Klautkes, the Tanetscheks, Carsten Linke, and many members of the BERG. During the times of fellowship after the worship services we met people who had come from nominal and from evangelical Protestantism, from Catholicism, and even from Marxism. When we asked them how they had come to the Reformed faith, one person told us that an acquaintance had sent him a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism. The most common answer was, “I read the Bible.” One man said, “I read the Bible, especially Ephesians One.”
Both of us took our wives along with us, at our own expense. We thought that Carol (Dykstra) and Dorothy (VanDerSchaaf) would enjoy meeting some of God’s people in Germany and Russia. They certainly did. But we found that the presence of our wives brought also a benefit to our work that we should have anticipated. Wherever we went, the women of the congregations opened up to Carol and Dorothy, and shared with them experiences and thoughts that they would not have shared with us. In turn, Carol and Dorothy were able to give them insights into the life of Protestant Reformed people that a professor and an elder could not have given. People in the BERG expressed their appreciation specifically for the fact that our wives had come along.
As we have already pointed out, there are extensive areas of agreement between the BERG and the PRCA on the Reformed faith. The BERG holds to the inerrancy and the infallibility of the creation account, and indeed of the whole Bible. The leadership of the BERG agrees with the Canons of Dordt, including the truth that there are no prerequisites to salvation, and the truth of double predestination. The BERG’s preaching is expository and Reformed. The congregation’s leaders are willing and able to refute the errors that the congregation encounters in its native land. There is agreement with the PRCA on important aspects of the doctrine of the covenant. One member of the congregation is translating Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics into German.
There are also differences between us that have to do with doctrine and practice. It is our prayer that we may have further contact and discussions with the brothers of the BERG in order to work through these differences.
Those of our readers who know German will find edifying materials on the website of the BERG and on the website of the journal, The Confessing Church (in German, Die Bekennende Kirche). This is the journal of which Dr. Klautke has been the editor and in which he regularly publishes articles. The website that contains current and archived editions ofThe Confessing Church iswww.bekennende-kircheonline.de. The website of the BERG is www.berg-giessen.de.