Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.
No sooner had the letter of Prof. Holwerda been published in the Standard Bearer than the life of the denomination began visibly to fragment.
It was ironic. Those were the very days during which we were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of our churches, and great effort was being made to demonstrate our strength and unity as a small but thriving Reformed denomination. And indeed from many points of view there was reason to believe we were just that. We had always had a firm doctrinal foundation upon which to build, in the theology of Rev. Hoeksema; and he, together with Rev. Ophoff, had worked effectively in preparing young men for the ministry of the Gospel in our churches. Not only were these young men well taught in Reformed theology, but also their exegetical and preaching abilities reflected those of their teachers. Although to a degree they may have lacked some of the niceties of higher education, when it came to the requirements of the ministry, they were well-prepared. In turn, the Standard Bearer constituted a theological journal of high quality; and, being read by our people generally, it served to join the denomination together into a functioning spiritual organism. Our people and officebearers had developed sound doctrinal discernment. Together they were unified in a common cause, with a love of the gospel and a longing for spiritual advancement.
At the same time, however, the letter of Prof. Holwerda lifted a corner of the tent sufficiently to expose the fact that not all was well within. There was a spirit of division and schism at work which thereafter could not be hidden or ignored.
Almost immediately a furor arose – not, as might have been expected, against the letter and its content, but rather against Rev. Ophoff for publishing it. It was a classic example of whipping the messenger because the message was not wanted. He had brought a problem to the fore which no one wished to hear; and the fury broke upon him, particularly from The Netherlands. It had been nearly a year since the synod of Amersfoort had decided to seek correspondence with our churches, and as yet nothing had been heard from the committee which it had appointed. And now it was revealed that that committee, rather than contacting the officials of our churches, had met secretly with two of our men visiting in their country, men who had no official capacity whatsoever. From them they had elicited testimony which could hardly be considered to represent the official position of our churches; and, on the basis of this testimony, advice was being given to those who were considering membership in our churches. And now, the irregularity of this having been exposed, a torrent of public letters began to arrive – from Dr. Schilder, Prof. Veenhof, and from Prof. Holwerda himself – filled with ill feelings toward Rev. Ophoff for having made them known.
Perhaps, in a way, there was some validity in their grievance. Rev. Hoeksema himself had advised him not to publish the letter before discussing it with the parties involved; and in the end he did apologize. Accordingly, it might be, and has been, argued that the publication of the letter, at least in the way that it was done, had made a bad matter worse, and caused a situation which might have been contained to reel out of control. One never knows, of course; the Lord does not tell us what might have been. But the fact is that the letter itself was not of Rev. Ophoff’s making; and it was with this letter itself that the basic problem lay. It had already been broadly distributed among the immigrants by the time Rev. Ophoff obtained a copy; and what it said very much concerned our denomination as a whole. Both we in our history and the Liberated in theirs had often suffered from secret connivances; and the best way of dealing with such had often been found to be to lay out everything for all to see. There was reason for Rev. Ophoff to do what he did. And, as Rev. Hoeksema soon began to argue, without approving of the publication as such, the problems of the letter were there, and they needed to be addressed. That was what really mattered.
To begin with, there was the outright repudiation of Protestant Reformed theology on the part of Prof. Holwerda before any discussion had taken place, as he said, “If Rev. Hoeksema’s conception was binding, I would say, Never join.” And what he had in mind was “his conception regarding election, etc.” This had to strike deep, for it was Rev. Hoeksema’s conception of election that lay at the very foundation of our churches. Because of it we had been cast out of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, and we had organized as a new denomination. It constituted, in effect, the official commitment of our churches, and in accord with that most basic principle of Reformed church order, set forth in Article 31, was to be considered “settled and binding” by them.
This did not mean, and the point was made clear to all who joined our churches, particularly among the new immigrants, that no one should or could become a member of our churches unless he understood and agreed with every aspect of our doctrine. It was recognized full well that when the Church Order speaks of such matters being “settled and binding,” it is not expected thereby that everyone will thereafter immediately exchange his own convictions for those of the new decision. After all, spiritual convictions are not simply arrived at by ecclesiastical fiat or demand. With Calvin, we understood the evils of “implicit faith,” a faith implanted in the church rather than in the Word of God. True Christian convictions can come only from personal study of the Scriptures by the moving of God’s Spirit. And no other way should be expected.
Thus it was acknowledged that, especially with their historical background, new immigrants exposed to our preaching for the first time would meet thoughts and concepts which they did not understand and with whichthey might well have difficulty. And with such we would work in good faith and kindly. But, at the same time, it should be realized that our preaching could not be changed simply to satisfy them. It was expected to be in accord with our principles, as we understood the Word of God, and those who joined our churches would have to receive it as such. Neither should they agitate against them. These were the positions of our churches, and would remain so, at least until such a time as they were duly and properly changed.
And such changes could be made. In fact, it was this activity of reconsideration and development of doctrinal positions which was, to the heart of Rev. Hoeksema, dear above all else. He relished theological dialogue and discussion, considering it, when properly done, the source of true strength within the church. It was for this very reason that he had looked forward to contact with Dr. Schilder, and then with the Liberated churches as a whole. The simple exchange of ecclesiastical greetings, or preaching assignments, or even church memberships, had relatively little interest for him. They might come in the end, or not. His concern was with the development of Christian doctrine and understanding through committed theological discussion. That for him came first. And for it he was waiting.
And that was what made the professor’s further suggestion so disturbing. He was, it seemed, advising those who joined our churches to infiltrate them with the purpose of spreading contrary views from within. As he said, “I believe that joining the Prot. Ref. Church is calling. And let them then as Liberated preserve their contact with Holland by all means, and also spread our literature. Our Liberated would be doing a fruitful work, if they then labored in the Prot. Ref. Churches to remove misunderstanding and to deepen insight.” What could this mean other than that those who joined the Protestant Reformed churches were being advised to maintain their primary loyalty with the Liberated churches from which they came, while at the same time seeking to supplant “Rev. Hoeksema’s conception” with theirs. It was pretty difficult to take this as anything else than an advocacy of schism within the churches, on the assumption, apparently, that we didn’t really “understand” Reformed theology anyway.
Moreover, this all sounded doubly threatening because of what was being heard from over the sea. From the beginning Rev. Ophoff had warned that what was being taught by the Liberated theologians there was hardly compatible with our positions; and his claim was being rapidly validated. At the very time all of this was going on, Prof. Veenhof was publishing in The Netherlands a little booklet entitled Appel!, in which he set forth the Liberated view of the covenant. It was filled with ideas which could hardly be taken as anything other than a kind of Common Grace within covenant bounds. The theory it expounded was that every baptized child receives covenantal grace, head for head, without any consideration of election or reprobation. It had to be that way, he said; and that challenged the deepest roots upon which our churches were built. With it not even the most sympathetic of our ministers could find the courage to agree. And surely, if this was what was being suggested, and if it should be promoted within our churches, it would be schismatic indeed.
But, apart from all of that, the most disconcerting of all was the quotation attributed to our own two ministers. They were reported to have said, “Indeed, we have much to be grateful for to Rev. Hoeksema. But his conception regarding election, etc. is not church doctrine. No one is bound by it. Some are emitting a totally different sound. Their opinion was that most (of the Prot. Ref.) do not think as Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff. And sympathy for the Liberated was great also in the matter of their doctrine of the covenant.” It was astounding. These men themselves, as those of whom they spoke, were all men who had studied under Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff; and it was generally understood that they reflected what they had learned in their preaching. But now, it was being said, they had no real commitment to it; and they were quite ready to exchange those views for others, and to do so without having expressed one word of disagreement. If this was not true, it was a scurrilous slander; and, if it was true, it constituted a problem that preempted all else.
From that time on Rev. Hoeksema labored editorially, not only to parry the blows aimed at Rev. Ophoff, but especially to elicit some definite answers to the implications of Holwerda’s missive. Especially he wanted some public explanation as to what had actually gone on at those secret meetings. But it was to no avail. Clear answers could not be obtained. And any effort to bring about meaningful discussion of real issues came to naught.
And with that, efforts to work with the immigrants in Canada began to grind to a halt as well. The only question anyone seemed to be interested in was whether we had an official doctrinal position or not. Everything stopped – until, that is, the synod of 1950.