Let us now examine what remains of Dr. Ridderbos’s attempt to prove with the Church Order that Classis (Synod) rightfully deposes officebearers. It is the doctor’s exegesis of Art. 79 of the Church Order to which we next have regard. The article reads,
“When Ministers of the Divine Word, Elders or Deacons, have committed any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the Church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the Elders and Deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the Consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office, shall be subject to the judgment of the Classis, with the advice of the Delegates of the (Particular) Synod mentioned in Article 11.”
The doctor’s interpretation of this article is contained in the following excerpts from his pen,
“The brethren (Schilder group) suppose that according to Art. 79 this suspension and deposition (of officebearers: Ministers, Elders, and Deacons), may not take place otherwise than by the Consistory with the neighboring church or in the event of deposition of a Minister by the Classis; a case of this kind may come to Synod only in the way of appeal.
“The answer to this is that Art. 79 does not purpose to say who may suspend and depose officebearers, but only means that the Consistory may not do it without the help of the neighboring church and that, if the offender be a minister of the word, it even may go no further than suspension.”
The doctor continues:
“Examples have been quoted from history proving that of old this has been the conception of the “Gereformeerde” Churches here in this land. The most telling proof of this is the fact, certainly, that the Dort Synod of 1618, who as far as the times of old are concerned, was the last to fix, render permanent, the Church Order, itself deposed officebearers; this Synod certainly would know best in what sense the by-itself-fixed Church Order (therefore called the Church Order of Dort) must be understood.”
Let us reply to this. As the doctor intimates, the Synod of Dort did not originate the Church Order, but it fixed, rendered it permanent, by revising and approving it as revised. In so far as the Church Order was corrected and amplified by the Synod of Dort, it is Dort’s Church Order. Let us now concentrate on the statement of the doctor to the effect that the Synod of Dort knew best in what sense its Church Order must be understood. Were what the doctor in this statement asserts true, we should be driven to the conclusion that we have no Church Order worthy of the name and that the fathers of Dort were either a deceitful or a stupid and incompetent people. The doctor’s statement there must be pronounced untrue. It certainly must be maintained that we know in what sense the Church Order must be understood just as well as the Fathers of Dort did. But is this possible? It is not only possible; it is a fact. This I repeat, must be maintained. I shall explain. Being on the street, you ask a fellow pedestrian for the time of day. He replies, “It is three o’clock.” Certainly you know just as well as your informer what is meant by that statement. For he expressed himself in clear and unmistakable language. And being an honest man, who is in the habit of saying just what he means, you, too, know as well as he, just what he meant by that statement.
Certainly the fathers of Dort were that kind of people. They were honest and God-fearing men and competent theologically and linguistically, thus men
who said what they meant and meant what they said, and communicated the thoughts of their heart in clear and understandable language. It means that we know, can know, if we so desire, as well as they what is meant and what they meant by the articles of their Church Order, thus know in what sense the Church Order is to be taken. To adopt the opposite view is to say that the Church Order is a collection of equivocable and on this account dark deliverances at whose meaning we must guess and of whose meaning therefore no one can be sure, thus a collection of rules in which men may read just what they please and with which they can go in any direction. If that were true, the Church Order were a fraud and its authors fraudulent men. But the Church Order is not a fraud; it is a trustworthy production of honest and trustworthy ecclesiastics.
Dr. Ridderbos does not deny this, of course. Yet he reasons as though the Church Order, definitely Art. 79, emits an uncertain sound. Taken by itself it may mean one thing as well as another. Hence, the thing to do is to allow the Synod of Dort to explain the article to us. This may be well said. But the difficulty is that the Synod of Dort gave us no handbook on the Church Order, explaining its supposedly doubtful articles.
If so, to what purpose is it to say that we find ourselves under the necessity of allowing the Synod of Dort to tell us in what sense the Church Order must be taken ? To no purpose whatever. Besides, if the fathers of Dort had been spiritually and intellectually incapable of providing the churches with a Church Order by itself interpretable, on what ground could it be maintained that they would have been spiritually and intellectually capable of supplementing their production with an interpretable handbook.
The thing is that the Church Order by itself is most competently interpretable and that therefore we do have a Church Order worthy of the name. Now this is what the doctor denies by his assertion that the Synod of Dort knows best in what sense the Church Order must be taken. And though the Synod did not provide the churches with a written handbook on the Church Order explaining its doubtful articles, it did nevertheless, according to the doctor, speak its mind on the Church Order. It did so not by the written word but by an action according to which it deposed a number of Arminian ministers. By this doing, the doctor has it, the Dort Synod revealed to the churches just how it wanted Art. 79 of the Church Order understood. It told us that it is not the purpose of this article to say who may depose officebearers, the Consistory or the Classis (Synod), and that therefore as far as this article is concerned, Classis, too, as well as the Consistory may depose officebearers. According to the doctor then the Synod of Dort after all did supply the churches with a handbook on the Church Order.
But the doctor’s contention raises questions. How does he know that deposition of officebearers by the Dort Synod had that significance? He does not know, of course. The doctor is simply conjecturing, that is, guessing at the thing. Now certainly to be of service to us a Dort handbook explaining the doubtful articles of the Church Order should be made of sterner stuff than conjectures. Somebody else has just as much right to conjecture that the Synod of Dort in deposing those Arminian ministers meant not at all to shed light on its supposedly equivocable Church Order but even knowingly went contrary to the Church Order all in the feverish haste to free the churches as speedily as possible of Arminian ministers. This is not a bad conjecture either, considering the treatment the fathers afforded those ministers after having deposed them. They put them on wagons and conveyed them cut of the country. They wanted to free the churches of that pernicious influence just that bad. Assuredly, we have not to do here with a baseless conjecture. It is just as good as that of the doctor’s. Even so, we must not make the grave mistake that the doctor makes. He reads his conjecture into the Church Order and thereby declares that by itself it is not interpretable. We must understand that a conjecture is but a guess and that therefore it may be wrong. We may not allow it to rule over the exegesis of the Church Order.
Let us consider that what is at stake here is the whole Church Order. The question is whether we have a Church Order worthy of the name. We do, but then the Church Order by itself is competently interpretable. Hence, we have not nor do we need a Dort handbook to explain its equivocable articles; for its articles are not equivocable—dark, uncertain, enigmatical—but they are plain and honest statements of honest men. To read our own conjectures into the Church Order is to silence it. Silencing the Church Order is very wrong. The Church Order must be allowed to speak and as its interpreters we must be willing to hear its voice, which is clear and understandable.
Dr. Ridderbos silences the Church Order. For he reads into it his own conjecture. And he accuses those who reject his conjecture for what it is—a conjecture—of undermining the authority of Classis and Synod and thus also of the Church Order by hairsplitting arguments.
The brother in Sioux Center, Iowa, wrote me another letter in which, he, too, calls my attention to the fact that the fathers of Dort themselves deposed officebearers, ministers * of the gospel. And he lets me know that, quoting him, “1 have come to the conclusion that you think you know the purpose of the
Church Order and its articles better than the fathers of Dort by whom they were composed.” Then the brother goes on to relate that shortly after the adjournment of the Synod of Dort several particular synods in the Netherlands went to deposing ministers of the Word, in large numbers. Sixty ministers, he writes, were deposed by the particular synod of Leiden, eight by the North Holland Synod and several more by the Synod of Utrecht. Arminian ministers they were. It means that ax ter the adjournment of the Synod of Dort, the Reformed Synods continued in that way the work of ridding the churches of Arminian ministers. So the brother wants to know if I think that my understanding of the Church Order excels that of the fathers of Dort. In a previous article he asked me if I thought I had better understanding of the Church Order than then late Dr. H. Bouwman of the Netherlands. (Also this doctor, it will be recalled, wrote a monumental work on Reformed Church Polity). But the brother hasn’t repeated that question, the reason being, it must be, that it appeared that there are three doctor Bouwman’s discoverable in that work of the doctor on “Gereformeerd Kerkrecht,”— 3 doctor Bouwman’s, each at variance with the other respecting the question whether Classis rightfully deposes officebearers. The brother understands, no doubt, that one cannot very well build on an authority so violently in conflict with himself. But now he calls my attention to the doing of those Synods. The brother does not understand. He, too, forgets that the Church Order by itself is most competently interpretable and that, if not, we can have no Church Order. The brother, too, wrongly imagines that the Synod of Dort left us a handbook in which it explains in what sense the Church Order must be taken, and his charge is that I ignore the light that the Synod in that book shed on its doubtful sentences and thus behalf as though I understand the Church Order better than its authors. I hope that when the brother reads this article he will see his mistake.
I repeat, the Synod of Dort gave us no handbook on the Church Order. Especially must we refrain from labelling “Dort’s Handbook on the Church Order” what those Reformed Synods, about whom the brother writes, did after the Synod of Dort adjourned,—they deposed officebearers and that is what Reformed Synod are still doing. To give to these doings the status of a “Dordt’s handbook on the Church Order” is ethically wrong. For that these doings deserve to be thus labelled is even more of a baseless conjecture than the deposition of officebearers by the Synod of Dort. And we may not read our guesses into the Church Order. Why don’t we study the Church Order and in connection herewith the Confession and the Scriptures? Are we afraid of the Church Order? afraid that an exegesis of the Church Order in obedience to the laws of exposition might turn out disastrously for our theory?
I repeatedly have made the statement that the Church Order by itself is most competently interpretable. Let us see now how very true this is. We go back to Art. 79, cited above. This article states literally,
1) That the consistory shall suspend and expel (depose) officebearers.
2) That the Consistory shall not engage in this action without the advice of the neighboring Church, in the event the offending officebearers be elder or deacon. If the Minister of the Word offend, the sentence of deposition must be subject to the judgment of the Classis with the advice of the Synod.
The article in clear and unmistakable language posits the right to depose officebearers in the Consistory. It does not state that this is also the task of Classis (Synod). The only right with which it vests the Classis (Synod) is that of serving the Consistory with advice. The article plainly settles the question who, according to the Church Order, shall depose officebearers. Its answer is that this shall be the task of the Consistory. But the doctor (Ridderbos) will not have it so. He maintains that it is not the purpose of Art. 79 to say who may depose officebearers, the Consistory or the Classis (Synod), and that therefore, of course, it does not. The sole purpose of this article of the Church Order, according to the doctor, is to say that the Consistory shall not engage in this action without subjecting its sentence of deposition to the judgment of the neighboring church and to that of the Classis and Synod in the event the offender is a minister of the Gospel. But the article does not purpose to say, the doctor tells us, that the Consistory only may depose officebearers and that Classis and Synod must refrain from this action. There is this question. How does the doctor know that it is not the purpose of Article 79 to say who may depose officebearers? How does the doctor himself say that he knows? He admits that what tells him is not the article itself but his Dort Handbook on the Church Order—that doing of Dort Synod whereby it deposed those Arminian ministers. This certainly is a confession on the part of the doctor that if he had not that handbook to consult and to go by it would be but fair and right for him to conclude that Article 79 does very actually declare that the consistory only shall depose officebearers.
We see now what happens to the Church Order when divines go by that handbook. The Church Order is very actually silenced. Of course, the fathers of Dort so could have worded Art. 79 as to cut short all argument as to just what it teaches. These fathers somehow could have worked in a clause reading, “The Consistory only shall depose officebearers.” And no doubt the fathers would have worked into the article some such clause, could they have foreseen that divines would arise in the churches who were going to play hocus pocus with the Church Order. However, if churchmen are determined to read into the Church Order their own theories, that is precisely what they would do, though the articles of the Church Order were written in language ever so pointed. The proof of this is the Holy Scriptures. Holy Writ is plain. Yet what have not men been making of the Scriptures!
But even without that clause “the Consistory only shall depose officebearers” it will be seen that Article 79, if interpreted in the light of the Church Order (not in the light of that imaginary handbook) very emphatically declares that the Consistory only shall depose officebearers and that the Classis (Synod) shall refrain from this action. Is not the statement “Christ died for his elect” very actually equivalent to the statement, “Christ died not for the reprobated? It is, and why so? Because reprobate and elect are two terms mutually exclusive. Likewise the two terms Consistory and Classis (Synod). They stand for different entities. As we saw in a previous article, a Consistory, according to the Confession and the Church Order, is an ecclesiastical council each and every member of which is chosen by lawful election of the one local brotherhood subject to it. A Classis, according to the Confession and the Church Order, is an ecclesiastical organization of delegates—ministers and elders—each of whom is chosen by lawful election not by the sum and total of churches that delegate to the Classical assembly and that in their totality constitute one congregation, but only by the one church represented by each. Hence, the Church Order and the Confession sharply distinguish the two. And they deposit all key-power—the right to administer the word and the sacraments and to exercise Church discipline (the three cannot be separated) in the consistory only. Who can cite one article from the Confession and the Church Order, according to which Classis (Synod) too, shall administer the word and the sacraments, and exercise Church Discipline (the three cannot be separated). Nobody can. Thus according to Church Order and the Confession, the Consistory and the Classis (Synod) very actually are two radically different entities. Therefore the statement of Art. 79, “the Consistory shall depose officebearers,” certainly is equivalent to the statement, “Classis (Synod) shall not depose officebearers.”
So it appears that a proper exegesis of the Church Order proves the conjecture of Dr. Ridderbos wrong and the other conjecture right,—proves that the Synod of Dort in deposing Arminian ministers must have knowingly gone against its own Church Order. For Article 79, as interpreted in the light of the Church Order, certainly forbids deposition of officebearers by Synod (Classis). That the Fathers of Dort went against their own Church Order can be explained. It has already been explained. Their haste to purge the Churches and the land of Arminian ministers was just that feverish. The Synod of Dort did wrong, of course, in deposing officebearers. But what must be said to the credit of the fathers of Dort is that they did not flood the land with brochures in which they attempted to argue the crooked thing straight. This is a phenomenon of today. If there were in existence such brochures, Dr. Ridderbos would have made use of them. Now all he can come with is a baseless conjecture.
There still remains something of Dr. Ridderbos’ argument that we have not yet examined. We will do so in the next article. Thus far the doctor has proved nothing. Fact is that already he has lost the whole argument. For I have proved that according to Art. 79, Classis (Synod) shall not depose officebearers.