Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Controversy in America
The two different camps found a home in the CRC. Because the followers of Kuyper were among the more educated among the people in the Netherlands, they soon occupied positions of leadership in the denomination in America and became influential in Calvin College. But the differences between the immigrants from the Secession Churches and the Kuyperian Churches were sharp and deep. The two groups not only did not get along in the Netherlands (even though both churches merged in 1892), but they did not get along within the CRC either. The antagonisms were so strong that many feared a church split.
I recall that, in my own years in Calvin, one professor especially, strongly Kuyperian in his outlook, spent more time talking about these days of struggle and controversy than he did talking about the material in the course he was supposed to be teaching. He extolled the virtues of Dutch culture, insisted that this culture was Reformed, and pleaded with his class to do in America what the Dutch had done in the Netherlands. He spoke of the bitterness of the struggle going on in the CRC and reflected in his own critical comments the bitterness in his own soul against the people from the tradition of the Secession Churches.
If I may make a parenthetical remark at this point, it is of interest to observe that this division within the CRC had important repercussions for subsequent history. From the perspective of the CRC and the believers in common grace, the divisions were healed and the unity of the denomination preserved by the three points of 1924. The first point, as I mentioned, was the teaching of the Secession Churches; the second and third points were purely Kuyperian. The breach was healed by the error of common grace.
From the viewpoint of the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches, the division was healed by a repudiation of common grace. Herman Hoeksema, over against common grace, taught that God’s grace is always saving, always sovereign, and always particular. Throughout the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, there were those in the churches of the Secession and in the followers of Kuyper who never held to any kind of common grace and who insisted on the truths of sovereign and particular grace. These Hoeksema brought together, from both traditions, by repudiating a dangerous innovation and by emphasizing that which the church of Christ had emphasized throughout its history.
The history I just described forms the background to Sin and Grace, and the reader must be aware of it if he is to understand the book and its importance. The book played a role in this ultimate union of those who held to sovereign and particular grace, whether they were from the Secession tradition or the Kuyperian churches.
The Janssen Controversy
A second important event, this time in the CRC itself, forms part of the historical background of Sin and Grace. This is the Janssen controversy.
Dr. Ralph Janssen was professor of Old Testament in Calvin Theological Seminary. In his instruction he introduced higher critical methods of Old Testament exegesis. A few examples will suffice. He held that on the basis of the scientific principle of the conservation of matter and energy (that is, that the amount of matter and energy in the creation is constant) the water which came from the rock in Kadesh was always present in the rock. The miracle did not consist in water being created by God to provide for Israel’s thirst. The miracle consisted in Moses’ hitting of the rock in just the right place, where the rock was thin. The water gushed out from a rock broken by Moses’ blow.
The stories of Samson, Janssen said, were myths invented to illustrate spiritual truths. Just as the Greeks had their heroes and invented mythical stories about them, so did Israel.
The monotheism in which Israel was instructed by Moses was actually learned from surrounding nomadic tribes. Moses, convinced of the truth of this view, conveyed it to Israel.
Now, the important point is that Janssen justified his views on the basis of Kuyperian common grace. He insisted, with obvious justification, that scientific discovery, elemental religion among heathen, and a knowledge of God as the only God could come from unbelievers because of the operations of the Holy Spirit working common grace in the unregenerate. Janssen insisted he was simply applying the doctrine of Kuyperian common grace to biblical studies.
At the synod of the CRC in Orange City, Iowa in 1922 the views of Janssen were condemned, and Janssen was relieved of his position in the seminary. This was done on the basis of a thorough examination of Janssen’s teachings by an official committee, in which committee Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema played a leading role.
The interesting part of this committee’s work and subsequent synodical decisions was that the issue of common grace was never addressed. The reason for this is undoubtedly that there was disagreement among the committee members and the delegates to synod on the question of common grace, while the condemnation of Janssen’s higher critical views was more widely approved.
Nevertheless, many supporters of Dr. Janssen remained in the church. These supporters, in every case strong proponents of Kuyperian common grace, were infuriated at Janssen’s condemnation. In their anger, they resolved that the opponents of common grace in general, and Danhof and Hoeksema in particular, would have to follow Janssen out of the church. Common grace was the issue which would serve as an effective tool.
Sin and Grace an Answer to Critics
Sin and Grace was written in 1923. No agreement or consensus had been reached on the question of common grace within the church. Many did not even know what the issues were; many were confused over that variety of common grace which was a part of the tradition of the Secession of 1834 and of Kuyperian common grace; many, firmly and unwaveringly committed to the truths of sovereign and particular grace, wanted no part of common grace in any form. The men who attempted to secure the condemnation of Danhof and Hoeksema relied on Kuyperian common grace, and that became the one issue in Sin and Grace. There is no reference in the book to a common favor and the well-meant gospel offer.
Prior to the writing of Sin and Grace, the authors of the book were somewhat naive, it seems. Rev. Jan Karel VanBaalen had opened the controversy soon after the condemnation of Janssen with a book (De Loochening der Gemeene Gratie: Gereformeerd of Doopersch? [The Denial of Common Grace: Reformed or Anabaptistic?]) in which he charged those who denied common grace with Anabaptism, or world-flight. Danhof and Hoeksema had answered that charge with a brochure with the title Niet Doopersch Maar Gereformeerd (Not Anabaptistic but Reformed). It appears as if the authors of Sin and Grace were really convinced that the teachings of Kuyper were so clearly contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions that if a book would be written in which Kuyper’s views were clearly set down and the biblical teachings set over against these views, everyone would be convinced of Kuyper’s errors. So the book contains extensive quotations and a thorough refutation of Kuyper’s views. The judgment of the authors was naïve. History proved the judgment wrong. Kuyper prevailed.
… to be continued.