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Previous article in this series: September 15, 2014, p. 484.

We continue our response to Dr. John Bolt’s essay entitled “Herman Hoeksema Was Right (On the Three Points That Really Matter)”—referring of course to what became known as the common grace controversy, or just ‘1924.’ And, by implication, Bolt means that the broader assemblies of the CRC—both the 1924 Synod and Classis Grand Rapids East in the year that followed—got it wrong.

The “Three Points That Really Matter” referred to by Bolt are the formulation of common grace as drawn up by the 1924 Synod first of all, and then the ecclesiastical procedures that ultimately led to Classis GR East’s decision to depose Hoeksema from office in 1925 and his consistory with him.

To state Bolt’s ‘charge’ succinctly: the Rev. H. Hoeksema was wronged by his own denomination in the common grace controversy.

We say again, no little charge for a CRC professor to make, be it ninety years after the fact.

As we pointed out in an earlier article, Bolt seeks to demonstrate his proposition by stating three theses and then showing their validity.

The three theses are:

#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.

We gave our assessment of Bolt’s first thesis in our last editorial (Sept. 15).

We turn now to Bolt’s second thesis: the doctrine of common grace is an extra-confessional matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions. This Bolt is persuaded was Hoeksema’s perspective and that in this Hoeksema was correct.

As indicated in our first article (Sept. 1) we are not convinced that Bolt’s statement is a completely accurate representation of Hoeksema’s position on what he himself viewed as “the error of common grace.”

We will explain why further down.

This is not to say that Bolt, in the second section of his case for Hoeksema, does not make some significant and telling points. He does.

Bolt makes clear that in several important decisions and items of advice Synod was, to use Bolt’s own words, conflicted and/or confused.

Bolt points out that in response to an overture from Classis Muskegon, which called for a study committee “to formulate a dogma on common grace that could be incorporated into a confession,” Synod declined, noting:

…this is not the way confessional dogmas are formed. These arise over a longer period of controversy and flow from a growing consensus of the church. (cf. Acta der Synode, 192, 149-150)

And as Bolt points out, Synod “then called for church leaders, preachers as well as professors, to continue studying the matter and engaging the church [!] so that in good time a consensus could be achieved” (“Herman Hoeksema Was Right,” 306).

But, as Bolt points out, this is a most “conflicting” statement, bound to give rise to later confusion. He writes:

Note well, this conclusion came after synod had already adopted the three points. Furthermore, in each of the three points, synod was led to insist that it had Reformed confessional and theological backing for its claim (emphasis ours—kk). In each case, the positive statement is backed with the ground: “it is evident from the quoted declarations of the Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view” (Ibid.).

There you have it.

On the one hand, Synod adopts three points of common grace and declares its teaching to be grounded in the Scriptures and the confessions (and even lists a couple of confessional references); but then, in a later statement, Synod rejects an overture to formulate just such a confessional statement, declaring that for such to occur there would have to be a longer period of controversy (in which its teachers are to engage the church [!]) before such a consensus could be reached (Ibid., 306).

A “conflicted” couple of declarations to say the least.

But what is most significant as far as Hoeksema’s case is concerned, is that the last judgment Synod made concerning the doctrine of common grace was its rejection of the Muskegon overture, Synod declaring that in its judgment the teaching of common grace was not yet ready to be declared a ‘confessional’ doctrine. And then it went on to urge the preachers and professors of the CRC to continue to study the matter and discuss on the issue with a view to arriving at a consensus in the future.

So, what exactly were Hoeksema and his consistory to conclude? That they were now confessionally bound (that common grace is taught by the confessions), and Hoeksema could not speak to the issue or explain his disagreements with it? Or could the consistory rightfully conclude that their preacher too had the right to participate in the ongoing “discussion”?

Having carefully studied the history Bolt is forthright in his conclusion:

When we combine all the evidence from the decisions of the 1924 Synod, it is only fair to conclude that on the question whether or not common grace was to be regarded as a confessional issue, a matter of dogma defining Reformed orthodoxy, Hoeksema appears to have right on his side (Ibid., 308-309).

We, of course, wholeheartedly concur with Bolt’s conclusion thus far. But the question about the accuracy of the wording of Bolt’s second thesis remains. His thesis reads: that the doctrine of common grace is an extra-confessional matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions.

Would Hoeksema have agreed with that?

We are not convinced he would have. Certainly not if Bolt means by this that common grace is a teaching that a denomination can allow her officebearers to hold and to teach alongside that of particular grace.

It is true, as Bolt points out, that historically there have been those doctrines about which there have been two different positions in the same denomination, doctrines about which theologians have disagreed and yet coexisted without either side charging the other with doctrinal error. One goes back to the Synod of Utrecht (1905) and what Bolt labels as its “pacification” formulas. Utrecht’s ruling allowed for the supra- as well as the infralapsarian view, for both the immediate and mediate regeneration views, and for eternal justification as well as the temporal justification doctrine, to name three areas of disagreement between Reformed theologians. All were judged to be within the framework of orthodoxy and the officebearers required to live with these differences.

In 1908 the CRC adopted Utrecht’s pacification formulas for herself. Every evidence is that Hoeksema was willing to live with these differences and to carry on discussion over these doctrines in a brotherly manner.

But that Hoeksema put the teaching of common grace into that category, or was ready to allow his CRC to put it into that category, is another matter.

It is true, as Bolt points out, that early in the controversy, as Hoeksema objected to Kuyper’s common grace teaching, and as others objected to his objections, Hoeksema insisted that it was a non-confessional matter. After all, there was no “dogma of common grace” to be found in the confessions. And he had not been required to subscribe to such a doctrine at his ordination into the ministry of the CRC.

From that point of view, Hoeksema was willing to speak of common grace as being extra-confessional. But that is different from saying that to Hoeksema it was a doctrine on which Reformed people could have and should allow each other to have a difference of opinion. All his writings, so vigorously opposed to Kuyper’s common grace theory already prior to 1924, militate against such a conclusion. To Hoeksema, common grace was not a matter of opinion, a difference of perspective on the doctrine of God’s grace, but a significant departure and doctrinal error.

Which leads us to this conclusion: when Hoeksema, as Bolt reminds us, early on in the controversy informed the CRC that he could live in the denomination with this theory as long as it was not elevated to a status of dogma (and hence made binding upon himself ), and as long as allowance was made to have free discussion on it, Hoeksema was not suggesting that the CRC declare that it was one of those perspectives that fit within the framework of orthodoxy, and leave it there; nor that should they do so, he would be willing to live with that, just as long as he did not have to subscribe to common grace himself. There is no evidence that Hoeksema was willing to let common grace remain a permissible view of orthodoxy.

Rather, what Hoeksema was saying, we are convinced, was that he was willing to live within the denomination as long as as much freedom was given to those who opposed the doctrine to speak their mind as to those who promoted it. In other words, he could live within the denomination as long as common grace remained in the arena as an item of frank, open discussion, an issue not yet settled by the broader assemblies. In other words, an issue that could be freely addressed from the pulpit for the people’s consideration, not only by those in favor of the doctrine, but by those critical of it as well.

Whether this was realistic and something a denomination would want to be carried on within itself for any period of time, especially when it involves an issue that causes emotions to run at high tide, is another matter. As the saying goes, “A house divided cannot stand” (a saying originating not with Abraham Lincoln, remember, but lifted from Scripture itself—cf. Mark 3:25).

But there is little doubt that this was what Hoeksema had in mind.

And one can understand his rationale.

After all, the issue stirring up the controversy was not the result of some new teaching that he and his colleagues had introduced into the churches, something for which they rightfully could be taken to task and on account of which they could be charged with trying to change a standing teaching of the churches. Rather, the issue was the common grace notion that was just recently developed by Kuyper, giving rise to a new sound and emphasis that was beginning to dominate instruction and preaching in the CRC, that was giving rise to a new world and life view.

In light of that, should not he and others have the freedom to examine this newly introduced doctrine, show its flaws and dangers, and demonstrate how they were convinced it was contrary to Scripture and the Reformed faith? After all, it being a non-confessional teaching, Hoeksema was not by his oath of subscription forbidden to militate against or publicly disagree with this doctrine now coming to the fore. Why should he not have as much freedom to oppose it as others to promote it? Theirs was the new emphasis, not his.

We say once again, for Dr. Bolt, on the basis of Hoeksema’s reported willingness to live in the CRC as long as she did not elevate common grace to a confessional level, to conclude that Hoeksema was willing to view common grace as a matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions, is a mistake.

What Hoeksema was willing to do was to live in the denomination where men taught this doctrine, as long as he was permitted publicly to state his opposition and the reasons for it. But if this right was denied him by some synodical decision, he knew he would have to make his testimony and go elsewhere. As long as the doctrine remained nonconfessional and he was not bound to be silent about it, he could live in the CRC.

And that is where the question arises: Did the Synod of Kalamazoo consign Hoeksema and his colleagues to silence or not? Was Hoeksema, post-Synod 1924, required to consider the synodical formulations of common grace as settled and binding, against which no public criticism could be brought (per Art. 31 of the Church Order)?
As Bolt himself notes, that issue was further complicated by Synod’s rejection of a recommendation by its advisory committee urging that Synod

…seriously admonish the brethren with a view to their deviations and…urge [them]…in all seriousness to refrain from all attempts to propagate in the church their deviating views regarding the three points…(Ibid., 307).

Synod did not adopt this advice. Evidently they thought this too strong an admonition, and undoubtedly the delegates recalled that they themselves had said the doctrine required more discussion in the churches. And not just by those in favor of it. Otherwise, what need was there for further discussion?

Instead, they adopted a more ambiguous statement about Hoeksema and his colleagues, the essence of which was:

…synod admonishes both brothers [Danhof and Hoeksema] to hold themselves in their preaching and in their writings to the standpoint of our confessions with reference to the three points, and at the same time admonishes the brothers… to guard against all one-sidedness in the presentation of the truth… (Ibid., 308).

And then, adding more confusion to what status common grace really had in the churches, synod immediately followed the above statement with an “on the other hand” in which (in Bolt’s words) “the two brothers were praised for reminding the church that abuses of the doctrine of common grace would lead to worldliness” (Ibid.).

Conflicted and confusing to say the least.

Not only was it plain from Synod’s conflicting statements that it was not ready to grant common grace confessional status, which would have made it binding on its officebearers, but the last statement in the paragraph above indicates that, as far as they were concerned, those critical of the doctrine had something to contribute to the church as well.

In light of all the above, the question arises, where does that leave Bolt’s second thesis?

From our perspective, mistaken; not a statement to which Hoeksema would have subscribed. There is no evidence in Hoeksema’s writings that he ever considered common grace as anything else than an error, and a deadly one at that. As far as he was concerned, it was a doctrine that was in conflict with what was truly, consistently Reformed.

At the same time Bolt is correct in pointing out that, when Hoeksema and his colleagues began sounding the alarm against common grace, it was a doctrine without confessional status. About this Hoeksema was right. And then the manner in which the Synod of 1924 went about settling the issue within the CRC was convoluted and filled with conflicting statements from beginning to end. The doctrine’s confessional status in the CRC was still up in the air.

Who, then, is to blame for the confusion that followed when Hoeksema and his colleagues continued to address the issue following the Synod of Kalamazoo? Hoeksema or Synod?

In our judgment, Bolt’s overall proposition is still therefore correct. Hoeksema was right and the Synod of the CRC was wrong.

We will conclude our assessment of Bolt’s essay in our next article.