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Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


An important book in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches is being readied for publication. It is a book authored by Revs. Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema. It was written in 1923, somewhat more than one year before these two ministers were expelled from the Christian Reformed Church. The book was written in the Dutch under the title Van Zonde en Genade. It has now been translated and should, the Lord willing, be available to the reading public within the next eight to ten months. It will be published under the title “Sin and Grace.”

It is, in my estimation, so important a book that the history of our churches can hardly be properly understood without reading this volume. I look forward, therefore, to its publication. This article is intended to be an introduction to that book.

The History of its Publication

This book has long been out of print, and, as the number of people able to read the Dutch steadily declined, there seemed to be no need for reprinting it.

It must have been about ten to fifteen years ago that my father, long retired from the active ministry, was looking for something to do that would be of benefit to the churches. He asked me what I thought about a project he had in mind: the translation of Van Zonde en Genade. Because he was fluent in Dutch and because he needed work to keep him occupied, I readily agreed that the book, one of the most important of the books written in the early history of our churches, should be translated. I was a bit skeptical whether he would be able to do it. He was, after all, in his eighties, very nearly blind, and weary with the burdens of many years in the ministry. But if it could be done, it would be well worth it.

We got out his copy of Van Dale’s Woordenboek, the authoritative dictionary of the Dutch language, set up a word processor, installed a program that would enlarge the text on the screen of the monitor, and encouraged him to do what he could.

It was not long after all this, a couple of years at most, that a typed manuscript was handed to me. It was a relatively large manuscript, numbering nearly 300 pages. Although I had originally read the book in the Dutch, I read it once again in the translation. It impressed me even more than it had when first I read it. Although it was difficult to know what to do with the manuscript, I thought it important enough to prepare a couple of sections for publication in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal. These articles in the Journal were read by a couple of men who were on the book publication committee of the RFPA. They asked to read the MS. I was hesitant to give it to them because it had sections missing; it had serious mistakes due to misreading; and the translation was a very literal translation of literary Dutch, which is almost unreadable by today’s readers.

Nevertheless, these men saw the value of the book and insisted that it had to be published. Their arguments were convincing and unanswerable. They appealed to the fact that it was part of our heritage and that this newest generation had to read it if they were to understand the issues which brought about the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The editing is now finished and the edited manuscript is in the hands of the RFPA Publishing Committee. It is presently undergoing the final work that needs to be done in preparation for publication.

The Early History of the Writing of the Book

It is significant that the book was written in 1923, at least one year before the Synod of Kalamazoo adopted the three points of common grace. Both Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema were ministers in good standing in the CRC. Rev. Danhof was pastor of First CRC of Kalamazoo and Rev. Hoeksema was pastor of Eastern Ave. CRC. Although this was over a year prior to the adoption of the three points, the common grace controversy was raging in the church. The book was written within the context of that controversy.

That common grace should be a bone of contention in the Christian Reformed Church is due to the history of the doctrine. To understand this history of the doctrine, we must go back a century before 1924 and describe a bit of church history.

The roots of the controversy lie in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. From the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Reformed Church in the Netherlands had been a state church. A state church was a church in which the government exercised a great deal of influence. The Reformed Church was the only church officially approved by the government. The government, in its approval of the Church, subsidized it to a considerable extent: it supported the entire educational system; it helped with the payment of ministerial salaries and the care of the poor; it supported retired ministers who were no longer able to work in the churches.

But an important element of the entire concept of a state church was the fact that all the citizens of the Netherlands were technically members of it. They were baptized by the church, married in the church, and buried under church supervision in church cemeteries. The local parish was responsible for the spiritual welfare of every citizen within its borders.

This State Church, however, became apostate. The apostasy set in early, as early as the last part of the seventeenth century. It continued and became worse, until the people of God were unable to worship God anymore in their local churches because worldliness had destroyed piety, and false doctrine had ruined the preaching.

In 1834 God brought reformation to the church. Under the leadership of Hendrik DeCock (and a few other ministers) a new denomination was formed, faithful to the truths of God’s sovereign grace as taught in Scripture and outlined in the confessions of the Reformed churches.

This reformation attracted mainly the lower class of people, the ordinary day laborers, the poor and uneducated, but pious and godly people, who were starving for the pure preaching of the Word. The movement soon faced many troubles, among them disagreement over the question of common grace. There were some among the leaders who held to this doctrine, although Hendrik De Cock did not.

The common grace to which some in the church held was a common grace which included two elements: a general attitude of favor which God has towards all men, and a general well-meant gospel offer in which God expresses His desire to save all who hear the gospel.

When the members of the churches of the Secession of 1834 came to America, those committed to this version of common grace took their view with them. They were the immigrants who, settling in what became Holland, Michigan, became the originators of the Christian Reformed Church. Their version of common grace was soon taught within the new denomination.

I say “version,” because another version of common grace soon began to be taught. It was introduced in the church by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He, after his conversion from modernism, also led a reformatory movement from the State Church. This was in 1886. This is the Kuyper of Particular Grace, the book in which he defended vigorously and cogently the doctrine that God’s grace is sovereign and for the elect alone.

That Kuyper should turn his attention to common grace is understandable only in terms of the situation in the Netherlands. It was common belief in the glory days of the Netherlands that the Dutch were a chosen people of God to whom had been given great favors and blessings. Accompanying these special favors of God was the calling to be the source and fountain of a worldwide influence, flowing from this small republic on the shores of the North Sea, exerting a Reformed influence upon all nations so that the Reformed faith could become global.

This vision of Kuyper was the explanation, at least in part, of several aspects of his life. It explains why Kuyper resigned his position as minister of the church in Amsterdam to organize a political party, run for the “Second House” in Parliament, and aspire to the office of prime minister. It also explains why Kuyper was originally not in favor of the union between the churches of the Secession of 1834 and the churches which followed his leadership out of the apostate State Church. He was especially critical of the Secession Churches, because they had repudiated all official relationships with the state, established congregations and a denomination free from state control and support, and had insisted on a “Free Church” rather than a “National Church.”

Kuyper thought this was a serious mistake on the part of the Secession churches. His churches, he believed, should never do this. In the Reformed Church of Am-sterdam, of which Kuyper was a pastor until he resigned, the entire citizenry of Amsterdam were on the membership rolls, even many years after Kuyper’s reformatory movement. He called his movement Doleantie or “Aggrieved.” By that term he expressed his conviction that he and those who followed him were still members of the State Church, but “grieved” by its apostasy. History cancelled his claim.

It is at this point that Kuyper’s common grace became important. He had to have some explanation for the fact that within the Reformed Church there were countless unbelievers who, as citizens of the Netherlands, were and remained members of the Reformed Church. He had to have some explanation for the fact that all the members of the Reformed Church, also citizens of the Netherlands, could work together to establish the Netherlands as a land where the Reformed faith influenced and determined the character of every institution of society and all culture so that the Netherlands could exert a Reformed influence throughout the world.

Kuyper found this in the doctrine of common grace.

Several things must be noted concerning this Kuyperian common grace. In the first place, it differed from the common grace as held by some in the Secession Churches. The defenders of common grace in that tradition held to a general attitude of God’s favor towards all men, manifested especially in the well-meant gospel offer. This is, by the way, the common grace set down as dogma in the first point of common grace as adopted by the Synod of Kalamazoo in 1924.

Kuyper’s common grace had to do with culture. Kuyper made especially five points in his development of common grace. The first is that his doctrine of common grace had to be distinguished from the common grace found in the Secession Churches, a common grace with which Kuyper did not agree. To emphasize the difference, Kuyper even used a different term: gemeene gratie, instead of algemeene genade. (The two terms cannot be distinguished in any English translation; and, ironically, in his definitive work on common grace, called Gemeene Gratie, Kuyper often used the two terms interchangeably.)

Secondly, Kuyper’s doctrine taught that if common grace had not intervened after the fall of Adam, man would have become a beast or a devil, and this world would have become a wasteland. The result would have been that the development of culture was impossible. This common grace, given to man after the fall, was found especially in the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, who restrained sin, produced good works in the wicked, and all without saving them.

Thirdly, Kuyper taught that, because of common grace, the cultural mandate not only remained in force, but was capable of being carried out in society by a cooperative effort on the part of believers and unbelievers. The result was that two streams could be found in history: the stream of common grace and the development of the cultural mandate, and the stream of special grace and the salvation of the church. Kuyper insisted that the former was as important as, if not more important than, the latter. Indeed, so crucial was the stream of history, characterized by the workings of God’s common grace, that the fruits of that culture would be preserved in the new Jerusalem.

This view formed the theological basis for the cooperation of all citizens in the Netherlands, backed by a government which gave official sanction to the Reformed Church. It would enable all to labor together to make the Netherlands the fountain of Reformed culture which would send forth a mighty stream flowing into all lands.

Fourthly, Kuyper himself recognized the fact that his doctrine of common grace was a novelty and an innovation. He granted that hints could be found in other Reformed writers going back to Calvin, but he insisted that he was really the author of this doctrine (as indeed he was) and that it now remained for the church to develop further his thought. This was completely contrary to the Synod of the CRC in 1924, which virtually adopted Kuyper’s common grace in the second and third points of its decision, but added that these doctrines were held “in the most flourishing period of Reformed theology.” Kuyper himself said this was not true.

Finally, when the Dutch who had followed Kuyper out of the State Church came to this country, they brought Kuyper’s views along and attempted to implement Kuyper’s vision here in America. They pleaded for involvement in all aspects of American society to influence society’s institutions and cause the Reformed faith so to dominant that all of American life was permeated by the principles of the Reformed faith.

… to be continued.