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A most interesting article. Herman Hoeksema Was Right (On the Three Points That Really Mattered).

Surprising even.

Noteworthy because of who wrote it.

Not, as one might expect, a Protestant Reformed theologian reiterating that H. Hoeksema was right back in 1924, and that the Christian Reformed Synod got it wrong. Nothing newsworthy there. This is an article written by Dr. John Bolt, professor of Systematic Theology in Calvin Seminary no less—not exactly an institution that has been known as a source of articles siding with Herman Hoeksema on various controversial issues. Certainly not when it comes to the issue of common grace and the decisions associated with the Synod of the CRC, 1924.

But here is such an article.

It is not that Dr. Bolt merely sides with Hoeksema on various important issues in that controversy (beginning with a criticism of the synod’s well-known ‘three points’), but really in this article Bolt exonerates Hoeksema when it comes to various key decisions made by the broader assemblies involved in the case—both by the 1924 Synod itself, and then shortly thereafter by Classis Grand Rapids East in prosecuting Hoeksema and subsequently expelling him and his consistory from the CRC. That is, the article exonerates Hoeksema (and by implication his colleagues, the Revs. Danhof and Ophoff with him) if Bolt’s main proposition and his arguments stand as stated. We are persuaded they do—in the main. Those who read the article will have to judge for themselves.

As an aside, we must admit we find it rather curious where the article is found, namely, in a book entitled Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation In the Reformed Tradition. The book is a collection of essays submitted to honor Dr. James De Jong, who happens to be a former president of Calvin Seminary. As Dr. De Jong comes to the end of a career as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, his friends and colleagues decided to publish this book in honor of his years of service. So this collection of fourteen essays.

Why Dr. Bolt and the editors thought an article entitled Herman Hoeksema Was Right appropriate in their honoring Dr. De Jong (in fact, the essay with which to conclude the book, chapter 14) we can only speculate. Perhaps something for De Jong to ruminate upon in Herman Hoeksema Reappraised (1) his years of retirement? We cannot imagine that it will add much sweetness to such ruminations.

More likely the title of this book of essays—Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation In the Reformed Tradition—explains, at least in part, why Bolt’s article was deemed appropriate to be included, namely, that the controversy in which Hoeksema played such a lead role in 1924 revolved about the teaching of common grace and the CRC’s doctrinal formulation of it. And that in turn raises this question: were the (in)famous three points of common grace as formulated by the Synod of Kalamazoo, 1924 really of the Reformed tradition—historically and confessionally?

Dr. Bolt’s conclusion is, they were not. In the essay he gives his reasons.

That Bolt is not content to let this issue become a sleeping dog in CRC circles but is willing to confront his colleagues and others with errors made and wrongs done (as he judges matters at this point) takes no little courage. We commend him for it. To the two editors, Dr. A. C. Leder and Dr. R. A. Muller, who were willing by the inclusion of this article to confront their colleagues and the reading public with the issues raised by Dr. Bolt, we also express our appreciation.

In their preface to the essays, the editors’ opening comments on Bolt’s article are worth noting.

Looking back on our past with honesty is not always an easy matter, particularly when so much that passes for history is written with a view either to the justification or the condemnation of a particular cherished point of view. John Bolt’s penetratingly honest essay concludes the volume with a new look into one of the most contentious moments in the history of the Christian Reformed Church, namely, the adoption of the “three points of common grace” by Synod Kalamazoo in 1924. After presenting the rather blunt initial gambit that “Hoeksema was right,” Bolt lays out both a significant case for the problematic nature of the “three points” on both confessional and ecclesiological grounds…(p. xvi).

The editors have more to say, also worth reading, but the above quote is sufficient to give the flavor of their estimation of Bolt’s bold essay.

Describing Bolt’s article as “penetratingly honest” is an honest assessment indeed.

The quote also serves to give a good synopsis of Bolt’s essay. It has to do with the “problematic nature of the ‘three points’ on both confessional and ecclesiological grounds.”

To avoid confusion, one must not strictly identify the title of Bolt’s essay “The Three Points That Really Matter” with the three points of common grace drawn up by the Synod of Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo’s formulation of the three points of common grace is only one of the “Three Points” addressed by Bolt.

Bolt lays out three areas in which he argues Hoeksema was right and the Synod of 1924 wrong; the first has to do with the doctrine of common grace itself, that is, the synod’s formulation of it (the confessional issue); Bolt’s second and third points relate (in the main) to the area of the ecclesiastical procedures.

In an introductory paragraph Bolt informs us that he intends to defend the following proposition:

In this essay I want to…defend the following proposition: With respect to the issues and controversies surrounding the common grace controversy generated by the decisions of the CRC’s Kalamazoo Synod of 1924 and its aftermath, including the suspension of the Rev. Herman Hoeksema by Classis Grand Rapids East, on the three fundamental issues—that grace is particular; that the doctrine of common grace is an extra-confessional matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions; and that Reformed church polity was violated in hierarchical actions—Herman Hoeksema was right and the Christian Reformed Church was wrong (pp. 296, 297).

So, one basic proposition (essentially as stated in the essay’s title), but divided into three fundamental issues as outlined above, three issues on which Bolt judges Hoeksema to be right and his own denomination to have been in error.

To get the three issues clearly before us we restate them.

#1—that grace is particular.

#2—that the doctrine of common grace is an extra-confessional matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions.

#3—that Reformed church polity was violated in hierarchical actions.

It is our intention to give a brief summary of Dr. Bolt’s arguments in each of these areas, and then assess his contentions.

At the outset we must state, regrettably, that we cannot agree completely with Dr. Bolt’s assessments on all points. For instance, re-read the second issue referred to above. Many of our readers will understand why we would question whether, in the end, this was really Hoeksema’s perspective. Though, that said, we can understand why in reading the 1924 history one might judge the statement as worded to be Hoeksema’s view.

This is not to say that there is not much of which Dr. Bolt writes with which we are in basic agreement. There is. And even if we find that we cannot at this point be in full agreement with Bolt on all his conclusions, we much appreciate his attempt to set the record straight on these issues.

We take our cue in offering a critique of Bolt’s conclusions from a footnote found in the essay itself.

While Bolt formulates his title in decisive and ‘dogmatic’ language—“Hoeksema Was Right,” the footnote makes clear that he casts it in this language to some extent for its shock value, that is, to catch the reader’s attention and then force one to consider his arguments. And then prompt a reply. As Bolt states:

This brief essay is suggestive [!] rather than definitive [!]. On a number of issues, such as the historical record concerning the relation between covenant and election in the Reformed tradition, further analysis is required. My reformulations of the three points of Kalamazoo, it barely needs mentioning, are those of one person and not of the Christian Reformed Church. My only goal in this essay is to argue that such further study is both an academic and an ecclesiastical obligation (emphasis ours—kk) (footnote 9, p. 297).

So, brother Bolt has come to certain conclusions, conclusions to which his honest reading of the history of 1924 and its writings has led him at this point, conclusions certain not to be so very popular in his own circles, but conclusions that he wants his colleagues to (re)consider, ponder, and then respond to.

Bolt’s essay, as the editors indicated, is an opening ‘gambit’ (a move in a chess game) meant to initiate response.

We are sure, therefore, that Dr. Bolt will not object to having his “suggestive” conclusions critiqued by a Protestant Reformed writer (or two). As Bolt’s article makes plain, he has not only thoroughly researched the original source material—visiting the Calvin College archives to study the minutes of the broader assemblies involved (together with the multitude of supplements serving as background material), but he has familiarized himself, as well, with the perspective of Protestant Reformed authors who have written on this history with its numerous issues. Quotes lifted from books such as For Thy Truth’s Sake and A Watered Garden, along with quotes lifted from Hoeksema’s own writings on the history with its issues, are scattered through Bolt’s essay.

Bolt’s concluding words in the above mentioned quote are striking.

Notice, he speaks of an “ecclesiastical obligation”! For his academic and theological colleagues of the CRC!

Bolt is bold indeed.

In the interest of truth and righteousness.

As we see it, what Dr. Bolt’s essay implies is that what many in the Reformed church world would just as soon dismiss and consign to the backwaters of ecclesiastical controversy and church history—a smallish, provincial controversy that took place in an insulated West Michigan Dutch community on certain side issues back in 1924—was anything but that!

And this history with its issues needs to be reappraised by thinking theologians. Issues were dealt with back then that still loom large today, issues that need to be carefully thought through once again.

Common grace, exactly because it touches one’s view of particular grace (which lies at the heart of the gospel, as any man who has a heart for what is apostolic and Reformed ought to understand), and then as well has everything to do with one’s world-and-life view, simply is not some small, backwater issue.

The CRC—where she is today in comparison with ninety years ago—should be living proof of that.

And it is not an issue that is going to go away. Kuyper’s Gemeene Gratie (Common Grace) is being translated for wider distribution to an English-speaking world. A whole new generation of budding theologians and preachers is being introduced to Kuyper’s stimulating writings on this doctrine, a theologian of stature with this theory so attractive to young, energetic, “let’s change the world,” impressionable minds.

What took place in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids in 1924 and 1925, and what was at stake, remains as relevant for today’s ecclesiastical scene as ninety years ago.

Dr. Bolt’s essay, in its own way, reminds us of that, and so warrants some response in the SB. The SB, after all, found its origins in this controversy and the closing of various doors to Hoeksema and his colleagues due to their opposition to the three points.

But before we conclude this article we take time to recommend the book in which Bolt’s essay is found. Dr. Bolt’s essay, of course, is what caught our eye, but it is not the only essay of value in the collection. Included are essays from writers such as Drs. R. Muller and R. Blacketer, well-known theological writers with significant things to say.

And there is a most significant little essay submitted by Dr. Lyle Bierma entitled Beza’s Two Confessions As a Source of the Heidelberg Catechism. Theodore Beza, mind you! The same Beza who is charged by so many with being the father of the scholastic branch of Reformed theology, the modifier/corrupter of Calvin’s true and pure (not so rationalistic) Calvinism. To think that two catechisms written by Beza should have, as Bierma rather convincingly demonstrates, a significant influence on Ursinus and Olevianus and the Catechism they drew up, our Heidelberg.

Talk about a surprise to many!

Why do we find this so interesting?

It raises the possibility, does it not, that others who, like Beza, have been marginalized as theologians given to the ‘scholastic, rationalistic brand of Calvinism’ may not be so far removed from the mainstream of Reformed Calvinism after all!

Food for thought.

… to be continued.