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 Previous article in this series: October 1, 2014, p. 6.

With this editorial we bring to a conclusion our analysis of Dr. John Bolt’s essay “Herman Hoeksema Was Right (On the Three Points that Really Matter).”

Having offered in two previous editorials our analysis of Dr. Bolt’s first two propositions and his supporting arguments, we turn now to his third proposition: that Reformed Church polity was violated in hierarchical actions (by the broader assemblies of the CRC in their treatment of Hoeksema and his consistory in 1924).

With Bolt’s third proposition we find ourselves in fundamental agreement.

But before we present the nub of Bolt’s arguments, we want to say something about what Bolt is dealing with here, namely, ecclesiastical procedure as determined by principles of the Church Order. We would underscore that the issue of ecclesiastical order and procedure is not to be minimized, especially not when what is at stake is censure of an officebearer.

Church members must understand that procedural issues, which can so often occupy lengthy discussion in our broader assemblies for ‘exasperatingly’ long periods of time, are more than a matter of mere legalities and proper protocol. Often it is this issue that determines whether a church member has been treated in a fair and righteous manner by a broader assembly, or an injustice has been done to one by the church of Christ itself (and that in the name of Christ—which cannot please Him). And if the injustice has been done to one (or to many) who has been faithful in office, faithfully representing Christ and His truth, then that injustice looms large indeed. One might properly expect evidences of God’s disapproval to follow such miscarriages of justice, something that church history has demonstrated again and again.

In this matter the old proverb stands: “The wheels of God’s justice may grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine!” God has His own way of vindicating the upright who have been wronged.

A proverb that is born out by the CRC’s history subsequent to 1924.

So we judge.

The hierarchical actions to which Bolt has reference have to do with actions taken by Classis Grand Rapids East in its Fall sessions following the 1924 Synod. Its decisions were made in response to protests brought against Hoeksema and his consistory concerning his continuing to preach against common grace and concerning the censure that Eastern Ave. had placed on four of its members.

As Bolt states, the main issue “…involves a highly controversial point of Reformed church polity: Does a classis (or synod) have the right to discipline/depose a minister against the wishes of his consistory/ council?” (Bolt’s contribution to a collection of essays entitled Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation in the Reformed Tradition, 309).

This in fact is what Classis Grand Rapids East did in December of 1924 when Hoeksema’s consistory refused to place Hoeksema under discipline as Classis advised them. Upon being informed by Eastern Ave.’s consistory that it had no intention of disciplining its pastor (suspending him from preaching), the Classis took it upon itself to declare Hoeksema suspended from office. And it then proceeded to inform Eastern Ave.’s consistory that, as a result, they also were guilty of insubordination and therefore were ipso facto deposed from their offices. They were, of course, free to appeal their depositions to the next synod of the CRC. But that was not to meet until June of 1926.

Had not Classis GR East, by such actions, transformed itself from a broader assembly to a superior assembly, and turned its advisory capacity into that of the right to command?

As far as Bolt is concerned,

Had the issue [before the Nov./ Dec. classis] only been a matter of demanding that Hoeksema submit to the “synodical yoke” of the common grace doctrine, the question of hierarchical action would be simple and obviously yes [!], particularly in view of the 1924 synod’s own reticence to activate heavy-artillery church discipline (Essay, 311)

But, as Bolt points out, complicating the whole matter before the post-synodical classes was the issue of Eastern Ave.’s consistory having placed four of its members under discipline for charging Hoeksema with the sin of preaching against doctrines taught in the creeds (so they contended), the primary one being that of common grace. Which charge was one thing. But, the consistory contended, they had made their charges without first going individually to speak with Rev. Hoeksema, putting them in violation of “following the way of Matthew 18.”

When the consistory refused to silence Hoeksema on his opposition to common grace and instead barred the protestants from “the table” (Lord’s Supper) so long as their charges stood against their pastor, the protestants appealed their censure to the May Classis of Grand Rapids East (1924).

Briefly stated, the Classis upheld the protestants’ appeal of their censure, advising Eastern Ave. to lift it. Classis maintained that the ‘way of Matthew 18’ was not required in protesting doctrinal positions stated publicly from the pulpit. But it also sent the protests against Hoeksema’s doctrinal declarations back to his consistory stating, in Bolt’s words “…that items that could be handled by a minor assembly may not be dealt with by a major assembly” (Essay, 315). This according to the requirements of Article 30 of the CO.

Being informed by their consistory that it did not intend to lift their censure, the protestants sent their protests with their charges against Hoeksema and the consistory on to synod, meeting that June in Kalamazoo. The synod would treat these appeals together with other protests brought against Hoeksema’s and Danhof ’s doctrinal positions as found in their public writings.

All this serves as background not only for assessing what faced the Classis of GR East in the Fall of 1924 and the judgments they were required to make on the protests that once again appeared on its agenda, but also as background for the response of the consistory of Eastern Ave. when the Classis instructed them that they were to require of their minister that he no longer preach against the doctrine of common grace, and once again advised them to lift the censure on the protestants.

If the decisions made by the 1924 Synod had been more decisive concerning what the status of the doctrine of common grace in the CRC now was, or if it had made pronouncements about the propriety of the censure placed upon the protestants of Eastern Ave., matters would have been more clear-cut as to what Classis East could require of the consistory. But, as pointed out by Bolt in his prior assessment of those synodical decisions, the cross-currents at work in that Synod meant that key issues were not at all settled. Not the status of the teaching of common grace as formulated by the Synod in its Three Points (it was a doctrine still needing more discussion, they said). And not how the churches were to assess Hoeksema in his unequivocal opposition to the teaching of common grace.

In fact, a case could be made that Synod had basically exonerated Hoeksema.

As Bolt points out, over against the protestants’ request that the synod declare Hoeksema and Danhof to be “unreformed,” due to their relentless opposition to common grace (together with their over-emphasis of God’s sovereignty vs. man’s responsibility), Synod had instead declared that for all their tendency to one-sidedness, “…it cannot be denied that, in the basic truths of the Reformed faith as set forth in our confessions, they are Reformed [!]” (Essay, 308).

And now, if Hoeksema continued publicly to oppose the teaching of common grace, his consistory was to charge him with teaching false doctrine? If the broadest assembly of the churches (synod) had refused to substantiate that charge against their pastor and make it its own when it had dealt essentially with these same protests in June, who was the Classis now to uphold these charges and require this of Hoeksema’s consistory?

Eastern Ave.’s consistory certainly had some grounds for disputing Classis’ requirement at this point in the controversy, viewing them as high-handed.

What the denomination’s broadest assembly had refused to do at this point in the controversy, a local classis took upon itself to do.

And then there is the issue of the protestants’ being placed under censure. Was it proper to begin with? Or was the Classis GR East in May correct in advising Eastern Ave.’s consistory to lift the censure, and then again in its Fall sessions in advising and then insisting it be lifted?

Of interest, as Bolt notes, is that Prof. Hanko, in his book For Thy Truth’s Sake, has come to the settled conclusion that Eastern Ave. erred in placing its protestants under censure. Basing his contention on Article 31 of the CO, the professor maintains that members of a Reformed church surely have the right to challenge the Reformed character of the preaching, bringing their charges directly to the elders, without being placed under censure for being in violation of Matthew 18 (Essay, 316; for more on Hanko’s perspective, cf. For Thy Truth’s Sake, Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2000, ch. 5).

Dr. Bolt commends Prof. Hanko for his integrity in being willing to fault Hoeksema for trying to defend his consistory’s actions on this matter.

Strikingly, it is the professor from the Calvin seminary who is inclined to side with Hoeksema on this issue.

Bolt expresses great empathy for the perspective of Hoeksema and his consistory. He speaks of mitigating circumstances in Eastern Ave.’s decision not to lift their censure, a censure originally placed on the protestants due to the evidence of their attitude towards their pastor—claiming that he was a teacher of false doctrine who was willfully contradicting the confessions—and then later refusing to lift the censure due to evidences of other improprieties that kept coming to light.

As Bolt points out (cf. Essay, 317) original suspicions about the protests were followed by evidence that the “…opposition to Hoeksema [in his congregation] was orchestrated [by men outside the congregation] and even had some financial backing.” And there was evidence that the protest that the three members had submitted together was not even written by the protestants, but that they were simply its conduits. And then it came to light that other protests addressed to the consistory were being printed and distributed to others outside the congregation while the consistory was still dealing with the allegations.

Having carefully studied and reflected upon this history, Bolt gives the following assessment:

When we put this all together—protests written by people other than the protestants themselves, cooperation in writing protests, and then publicly printing these protests before any church assembly had adjudicated them—I am less inclined to fault Hoeksema and the Eastern Avenue consistory for its act of church discipline. Without giving them full exoneration, it seems to me that it is at least fair to judge the matter as ambiguous (Essay, 317).

All of which leads Bolt to the following conclusion:

When that ambiguity is acknowledged and combined with the 1924 synod’s refusal to condemn Hoeksema as “unreformed,” I am comfortable in suggesting that there is a good case for saying the Classis Grand Rapids East acted in a hierarchical fashion when it suspended and deposed Hoeksema for his refusal to sign a loyalty oath to the three points of common grace adopted by the 1924 CRC of Kalamazoo and the refusal by the Eastern Avenue consistory to lift the censure of the protesting members in his church. There was considerable unfinished business that needed the attention it never received (Essay, 317).

Speaking editorially, we find ourselves in full agreement with the professor from the Calvin seminary on this one, that is, why Eastern Ave.’s consistory had just cause not to lift its censure contrary to the advice of classis. The consistory, of course, would have had to appeal its case with its reasons to the next synod, but the classis’ peremptory decision to suspend and depose Hoeksema and his consistory upon their refusal to comply prevented that course of action.

Also, in our judgment, Hoeksema’s consistory had just cause to place the protestants under censure at the very beginning, not because they challenged the orthodoxy of statements found in Hoeksema’s preaching (the right of every member), but because they charged him with sin in his declarations, which charge implies that one is willfully and knowingly teaching things contrary to the confessions. That, in our judgment, is another matter. And certainly if a consistory is convinced the charge is false, they cannot allow those members to partake at the table with their pastor while their charges of sin still stand. It is either retract the charge of sin, or refrain from partaking.

That said, we find ourselves in complete agreement with Prof. Hanko and his judgment that under no circumstance may a broader assembly assume to itself the right to suspend and depose officebearers. As Prof. Hanko argues, this is the sacred right of the autonomy of the local congregation. (Cf. For Thy Truth’s Sake, ch. 5.) It strikes me that if anything is ‘Reformed’ in church polity and in keeping with the Reformers’ controversy with Rome and their ‘Re-formation’ of the church, that is. Broader assemblies may advise to suspend and depose, but they have no power to do so themselves. Not that their advice has no weight. If a consistory refuses to submit itself to such judgment, it places itself with its congregation outside the federation of churches. But the officebearers still have the right to function as ordained by God and as lawfully called by Christ. Classis GR East, in effect, attempted to step between Christ and the calling of Eastern Ave.’s officebearers.

Hierarchy is no small matter.

But we concur with Bolt, “unfinished business” indeed.

By which we understand Bolt to imply not simply that there was unfinished business back in 1924 prior to Classis GR East’s hierarchical (Romish!) treatment of three of its ministers and their congregations, but the business, the basic issues raised by the controversy, including the doctrine of common grace itself, are matters that ought to be reconsidered and addressed today. For instance, what evidence for any confessional basis for the teaching of common grace is there to be found in the Reformed creeds? And if not, what does that say about this doctrine that has taken on a life of its own? A wildly growing vine that is choking the life out of the tree of Reformed Christendom today.

What will come of Bolt’s challenging his colleagues to review this era of their history with its decisions? Probably not much. But, for all that, Dr. Bolt’s essay is a testimony from the outside that we appreciate. If nothing else, it does serve to support the Protestant Reformed denomination’s defense of her origins, that she was forced out by her mother church—and therefore is not to be charged with creating schism in Christ’s church as some are wont to allege, which charge is no small matter, having far-reaching implications.

Thanks for the honest effort, Dr. Bolt.