In our Nov. 15 issue we reported to you concerning the dismissal of Dr. S. Woudstra as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological College at Geelong, Australia. Since that time we have learned from various correspondents in Australasia that the facts as reported in that editorial were correct.
From more than one source we have learned concerning some further details and some further developments.
First of all, it has been reliably reported to us that as far as his position with respect to Scripture is concerned, Dr. Woudstra hides behind Report 36-44 of the Christian Reformed Church, the report and decision concerning the Nature and Extent of the Authority of Scripture. With respect to his views concerning election and reprobation, we are informed that Dr. Woudstra appeals to Dr. Berkouwer’s book on “Divine Election” and to Dr. Runia’s contribution in the book “Crisis in the Reformed Churches.” In this connection, therefore, the issue with respect to Dr. Woudstra’s views is the same as it was in the Runia matter some years ago, namely, that of the denial of sovereign reprobation. We are even informed that Dr. Woudstra made use of Dr. Runia’s class notes in the teachings that were criticized. From all this it is evident that the issues are indeed very, very serious. Moreover, it is plain, too, that the issues which confront the Reformed Churches in Australasia in connection with the Reformed Theological College, from which they receive their ministers, are at least in part some of the same issues which are troubling the Reformed community elsewhere in the world, especially in the Christian Reformed Church in America and in the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands: Reformed believers and officebearers may well pay careful attention to this, lest their churches and their faith be jeopardized by these corruptions. So-called conservatives had better not sit on their hands and hope for the best, but should take affirmative action, and should not allow the liberals and those who coddle the liberals to win out by default. Meanwhile, it appears as though the initiative for the removal of Dr. Woudstra was largely by men from the Free Church, that is, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia. It must be remembered that the Reformed Theological College is not a denomination school, but is run by an association. There are various churches which lend their support to this college, including the Reformed Churches of Australia, Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and the (Free) Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia. It is reported that the men of the Free Church were adamant about the removal of Dr. Woudstra. Nevertheless, the action to remove Dr. Woudstra was taken by the (all Reformed) Board of Directors of the college, and that, too, by the unanimous recommendation of the Deputies of the Reformed Churches of Australia, among whom is the Rev. W. Deenick, editor of Trowel and Sword, the magazine of the Reformed Churches of Australia.
But there have been further developments.
The Board of Directors informed the Sessions (consistories) of the various churches and also the members of the Association concerning their decision as early as Oct. 25, 1974.
This letter stated:
“It is with deep regret that the Board has to inform you, as members of the Association, of its decision to terminate the services of Dr. S. Woudstra, who has been teaching at the college. This decision is the culmination of a situation of unrest and dissatisfaction that arose in the College concerning the teaching of Dr. Woudstra.
“This decision was reached on the basis of reports made by the ecclesiastical Deputies, who have investigated the entire situation, and also after due consultation with the members of faculty.”
Furthermore the Board states that they have taken these actions in accordance with Article 11 of the Constitution and Articles 9 and 11 of the regulations of the Reformed Theological College. After stating that the CRC Foreign Missions Board has been informed and that Dr. Woudstra has been authorized to make plans for return, the letter goes on to state: “In making this decision the Board has acted in the best interests of the College. It is concerned that the College continues to maintain an unambiguous witness to the Reformed faith in the Australian scene and fulfill its avowed purpose (as stated in Article 3 of its regulations) ‘to teach, defend and propagate the Reformed Faith’ and ‘to train students for the Holy Ministry.’ ” The Board concludes by asking for prayer for Dr. Woudstra and his family as well as for the College.
Now it is obvious that this statement of the Board is as brief as possible. In fact, it states nothing about the teachings of Dr. Woudstra or about the specific grounds for his removal. Only by implication does it suggest that there were doctrinal issues at stake which involved the college’s “unambiguous witness to the Reformed Faith in the Australian scene” and which would make it impossible for the College to fulfill its avowed purpose. It would seem to us that if both the Board and the Deputies reached a unanimous decision in this matter, and if, moreover, the issues were as serious as are suggested in the Board’s letter and as have been reported to us, it would have been in the best interests of the College if the specific issues had been made known to the constituency of the Association. Still more: since, though the college is operated by an association, nevertheless the supporting churches are intimately concerned in the college’s “unambiguous witness to the Reformed Faith,” it would appear to us that the churches at large, both Presbyterian and Reformed, have a right to know what is going on. I say this-regardless of the right or wrong of Woudstra’s dismissal. I am of the opinion that the action taken was correct. Others, however, might be of a different opinion. But if the grounds for Woudstra’s dismissal are not made known, no one in the churches can possibly be in a position to judge, though this is a matter of great concern both to the members of the Association and to the members and officebearers of both the Presbyterian and the Reformed denominations in Australasia.
Yet, as of the tenth of December, I was informed that while there are many rumors in the churches, nevertheless there has been little, if any, information on this matter given out in the churches and in the periodicals. This is altogether wrong.
Moreover, the Rev. W. Deenick does matters no good and does neither the Reformed Churches nor the Reformed Theological College a service by editorializing in Trowel and Sword (Nov., 1974) on “Rumor Round The College”, but failing to inform his readers of the facts. He was in a position to do this: for he is one of the deputies who voted in favor of Woudstra’s dismissal. Not only could he have published the statement of the Board of Directors, but he could have furnished details as to the reasons for Woudstra’s dismissal and as to the doctrinal errors involved. Yet he fails completely to do so. He makes some points concerning “the character of the college as an independent institution and concerning its relationship to the churches that co-operate in it.” And we freely concede that there are difficulties involved in the operation of an independent college. We agree, therefore, when the Rev. Deenick writes: “That the RTC is an independent college also means that we must respect the authority that the institution has in its own affairs. The men appointed to exercise that authority are bound by the constitution under which they have been appointed. In the matter of professorial appointments and doctrinal supervision the churches co-operating in the RTC have (through their synodically appointed deputies) certain rights, privileges and obligations, stipulated in the constitution; but the final decision rests with the B of D. It is quite out of the question that local sessions or individual members of the association could have a say in such appointments. The evaluation of a professor’s qualifications (academically and otherwise), of his place in and his contribution to the college and of his doctrinal standing within the RTC is not the responsibility of any local church or of any individual. It is the responsibility of the B of D which receives advice from church representatives and from the faculty.” We also agree, therefore, when he adds: “In Dr. Woudstra’s case this means that the final decision re his professorship at the RTC is no one’s responsibility but that of the Board.”
In this light, it would also appear to be true that the denominations supporting the RTC (specifically, now, the Reformed Churches of Australia and the Reformed Churches of New Zealand) cannot become involved in the question of the rightness or the wrongness of the decision concerning Dr. Woudstra until their deputies make their next report to the synods of their respective denominations. At that point a synod could pass judgment on the case. And if such a synod found itself in disagreement with the Board of Directors, it would be confronted by the question whether it will or will not continue to support the College.
Yet the Rev. Deenick brings up a difficulty in this connection: “One more question comes up in this connection. How far reaches the validity of a pronouncement by the B of D concerning a man’s orthodoxy? Obviously it has validity within the context of the RTC, but in the church it cannot have any authority. Yet, a man’s reputation in the church could be severely damaged by it. He stands accused before his case has been dealt with properly in the councils of the church. It seems necessary then that at this point (as well as at others) the constitution of the RTC be looked into carefully.
“The evaluation of the work of a professor or a lecturer is properly within the jurisdiction of the B of D; and many different aspects of his work, also the doctrinal aspect, will come up for examination. The authority to make (and to publish) a verdict on a man’s orthodoxy can (it seems to me) never rest with a non-ecclesiastical body. The present board has acted wholly within the limits of the constitution, but the constitution may well need revision at this point.
“As far as Dr. Woudstra is concerned good order and fairness require that the church holds him innocent until the church finds him guilty if it finds him guilty. In what manner the church should act in his case is to be decided upon by the classis of the Reformed Churches in Victoria.”
The Rev. Deenick here brings up a problem, of course, which lies in the very nature of an independent seminary. Such a non-ecclesiastical school must necessarily have control of its own affairs; if it does not, then, of course, it loses its independent character as a school operated by an association rather than by a denomination. And if it should lose that independent character, it would seem that the very possibility of various denominations cooperating in such a school would also disappear. Yet these paragraphs leave a strange impression, for the following reasons: 1) Why at this point should the constitution of the RTC be looked into carefully? And how can looking into ‘that constitution solve any problem? The choice, it seems to me, is plain: either an independent college or a denominational. college. 2) Not only does Dr. Woudstra stand accused, but he stands condemned. It is true that his condemnation is valid with in the context of the RTC only. Nevertheless, he has been condemned by a Board of Directors, consisting of Reformed men, and that, too, at the recommendation of the deputies of the Reformed Churches, of whom the Rev. Deenick is one. Is the Rev. Deenick suggesting that what was reprehensible teaching in the College might nevertheless be acceptable in the Reformed Churches? 3) The Rev. Deenick’s statement is incomplete. In this context, he should have added that no decision by Classis Victoria of the Reformed Churches could have any validity or should carry any weight with the Board of Directors.
Yet it appears that Classis Victoria is now attempting to influence the College. For in the bulletin of the Reformed Church of Geelong there appears the following announcement from the Rev. Deenick: “Since the members are naturally keenly interested in the developments round the college and the doctrinal agreement at the college and in the church we should publish in this bulletin also that the classis meeting on Saturday, Nov. 16, after a rather long and a thorough interview with Dr. Woudstra, came to the conclusion that his ministry in the church has been faithful to the gospel as taught in our churches. Whether this means that the Reformed Theological College will now come back on its earlier decisions is still an open question. The college is independent and in it we work together with Christians from other non-Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Since the decision at classis was not fully unanimous and since there is obvious disagreement between the RTC and sections in the church it is necessary that everyone acts with restraint and that we pray sincerely for the unity to be restored and the Christian love and fellowship to be maintained as it has been so far.” We are informed that this decision of the classis was by a narrow margin. However that may be, it is not the classis, or any other classis, which has anything to say about the RTC. And the college and its Board of Directors should resist adamantly any attempt on the part of Classis Victoria to influence it to reverse its earlier decisions in the Woudstra matter.
This is the more true in the light of the nature of these issues. Referring to the disappointment of many with respect to the RTC, the Rev. Deenick writes: “Understandable as this reaction may be, it is not fair to ignore the fact that the real reason for our troubles is the theological confusion in which the (Dutch orientated) reformed community finds itself. This is not the mistake of the Reformed Presbyterians or the Free Presbyterians but of the reformed theologians (in the Dutch tradition) themselves.” A little later, referring to Dr. Woudstra, the Rev. Deenick writes: “That his teaching and his position at the college have run into the present difficulties is a distressing disappointment for all and everyone in the RTC; but it is not unrelated to the general state of uncertainty in (Dutch orientated) reformed theology, for which no one in the Presbyterian world can be blamed and in which we in Australia do not want to be involved.”
The fact of the matter is, however, that the churches in Australia and New Zealand i>are involved in what Deenick calls “the general state of uncertainty in reformed theology.” Personally, I would call it by a different name. It is a struggle for the Reformed truth over against vicious attempts to compromise and to destroy that Reformed heritage. That struggle is going on all over the world. It is impossible for any group of churches which is part of the Reformed community to avoid taking a stand with respect to that struggle. It is simply impossible today so to isolate oneself that he is not confronted by these issues. Besides, the churches in Australasia are concretely confronted by these issues. They were confronted by them a few years ago when Dr. Runia was in the college; and they may be thankful that he is gone. Whether they like it or not, they are now confronted by these issues in the matter of Dr. Woudstra.
If the Reformed Theological College is pressured to restore Dr. Woudstra to his position, I hope that they will firmly resist it. Classis Victoria, if it was properly informed concerning the issues, made a grave mistake already. I hope that the Reformed Churches in Australia will not follow the lead of Classis Victoria. Let those who love the Reformed truth see the handwriting on the wall. Let them take a firm stand, both in Australia and in New Zealand. Let them be much more firm than they have been heretofore. That only will be salutary for those churches.