The church of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth is sometimes called the church militant. The name is apt, for Christ calls His church to warfare as long as she is in the world. God Himself has put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan, and that enmity can only result in open and perpetual hostilities.
The church is called to fight, however, with spiritual weapons, for the battle is spiritual. The enemy is Satan and his allies — the world of wicked men. Their weapons are worldliness and false doctrine.
Sometimes the enemy is outside the walls of the city of God; sometimes the enemy appears within the walls. False doctrine can be defended by wicked men outside the church; more often, though, false doctrine is taught by men within the church. The latter is what happened in 1950-1953.
The Enemy and His Weapons
The enemy were men within the Protestant Reformed Churches who introduced into the teachings and doctrine of the churches ideas and views which were directly contrary to what the churches had always taught and to what was, in fact, the truth of Scripture and the Reformed confessions.
The men who were responsible for this were ministers of the gospel who occupied pulpits throughout the denomination, elders and deacons who supported these erroneous teachings, and people in the pew, many of whom were men of influence and stature, who openly encouraged such teaching.
The weapons they used were, in general, the doctrines of a conditional salvation, and, in particular, the doctrines of a general and conditional promise in the covenant.
When the Protestant Reformed Churches were founded, they were established because the truth of God’s sovereign, unconditional, and particular grace had to be defended over against common grace. The errors now introduced in the PRC were the heresies of conditional salvation, i.e., that man had to fulfill the condition of faith before he could be saved.
While no single congregation, and indeed no single home was left unaffected, the battle raged particularly in the church papers; in First PRC in Grand Rapids, MI; and on the ecclesiastical assemblies of the churches: Classes and Synods.
The battle was fought particularly in First PRC because one of the three pastors there, Rev. Hubert De Wolf, openly taught heresy from the pulpit in the course of his preaching. It was fought on the broader assemblies because “The Declaration of Principles” was hated for its clear statement of the truth. It was fought in the church papers because conditional theology was defended by the supporters of Hubert De Wolf in public writings in a paper called Concordia.
The Course of the Battle in the Church Papers
It was really in the church papers that the long and difficult battle began.
When some of the ministers in the PRC began to defend conditional theology, they made use of Concordia to do it. The magazine had appeared already in 1944, but, ironically, in defiance of its name, which means “Harmony,” it sowed discord and division in the church. Because it entered nearly every home in the denomination, it sought to introduce false doctrine into every home. And because PR homes were, above all, covenantal homes, an open defense of a conditional covenant was a direct attack on the spiritual structure of the home.
It was no wonder, then, that Rev. Herman Hoeksema, editor-in-chief of the Standard Bearer, engaged in a defense of a sovereign and unconditional covenant in the columns of the paper for which he was responsible.
The polemics continued throughout the controversy. Perhaps no other aspect of the battle involved the membership of the churches more than the conflict in the church papers.
The Course of the Battle in First Church
First Church could have been called the flagship of the denomination in those days. It was the congregation in which Rev. Hoeksema was pastor at the time of his suspension from office for refusing to agree to the three points of common grace. It was far and away the largest congregation, numbering some 560 families. It was the mother church.
Because of its size, it had three pastors, Rev. Herman Hoeksema, Rev. Hubert De Wolf, and my father, Rev. Cornelius Hanko. While both Revs. Hoeksema and Hanko were strong defenders of unconditional salvation, Rev. De Wolf was not of that mind at all. He was intent on promoting in the congregation a conditional theology.
While De Wolf promoted his theology in catechism classes and personal contact, he finally brought it to the pulpit on April 15, 1951, when he made the bold statement in a sermon on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “God promises to every one of you that if you believe you will be saved.” Here was the clearest possible defense of a general and conditional promise in the covenant.
The statement brought protests from members of the congregation and put the controversy squarely in the hands of the elders. The consistory of First Church found it difficult to deal with the problem, chiefly because the elders reflected in their own ranks the divisions in the congregation. But with the passing of the months, the battle grew in intensity.
The congregation was affected by it, of course. Although discussions over the issues and heated debates over the doctrines involved took place at every occasion, the worst, from my viewpoint, was the difficulty in worshiping. My father often spoke of the difficulty in preaching because the absence of the Holy Spirit from the congregation was palpable. But the worship of the congregation was also noticeably affected.
Our home life was also affected. While we did not know what was taking place in the consistory meetings, we could tell the toll the battle was taking on my father — and we were constantly worried about his well-being.
After almost a year and a half, the struggle in the consistory had somewhat faded into the background, and some expressed hope that the whole difficulty could be solved in such a way that the congregation would remain intact. But then, on September 14, 1952, De Wolf, throwing caution to the winds, openly reaffirmed in the most emphatic way his commitment to conditional theology. In a preparatory service, held with a view to the administration of the Lord’s Supper, he preached on Matthew 18:3 and defended the proposition: “Our act of conversion is a prerequisite to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The congregation nearly exploded, and once again the elders took up the issues. In February of 1953 De Wolf was subjected to an examination of his orthodoxy. Because of a majority in the consistory, his examination was approved and he was cleared of all heresy charges. Some elders protested this decision exonerating De Wolf, and appealed to Classis East of the PRC.
And so it came to Classis.
The committee appointed to study the matter was composed of three ministers and two elders. The ministers prepared a report defending De Wolf’s statements as not necessarily heretical. The two elders, in a minority report, recommended the condemnation of the statements by Classis. After De Wolf himself repudiated the majority report, Classis decided that the statements of De Wolf were literally heretical and that De Wolf had to apologize for them or be subject to the discipline of the consistory.
A committee was appointed to bring the decision to the consistory of First Church, which it also did in June of 1953. By a majority vote the advice of Classis was accepted. Shortly afterward De Wolf made a statement to the congregation in which he apologized for offending some in the congregation, but did not apologize for his heresy. A meeting of the consistory on June 21 ended in chaos. But on June 22, the faithful elders, along with Revs. Hoeksema and Hanko, met with the consistory of Southeast PRC and proceeded to De Wolf’s suspension and the deposition of the office bearers supporting him.
De Wolf’s supporters took over the church property, changed the locks, and proceeded to make use of the premises. The faithful remnant, less than half of the congregation, worshiped in the chapel of Grand Rapids Christian High School.
The Course of the Battle on the Assemblies
The battles on the assemblies concentrated in “The Declaration of Principles.” Because the PRC were working among Dutch immigrants in Canada who were for the most part from “Liberated” churches in the Netherlands, where conditional theology was maintained and defended, the missionary, Rev. Andrew Cammenga, asked the Mission Committee of the PRC for a statement concerning the doctrinal position of the PRC to be used on the mission field. This request came to the Synod of 1950 and a document called “The Declaration of Principles” was drawn up, provisionally approved, and sent back to the churches for examination and discussion with a view to final approval at the Synod of 1951.
The document set forth the biblical and confessional teachings over against such key doctrines as common grace, the well-meant offer, and conditional salvation. Although adopted nearly unanimously by the Synod of 1950, it stirred up bitter debate throughout the churches when the supporters of conditional salvation began to understand what was implied in it.
Although the Synod of 1951 officially adopted the Declaration, by a vote of 9-7 (reflecting the split in the churches), the controversy continued unabated.
Classis East, as we noticed, became a battlefield when it considered protests against De Wolf from First Church. It became a battlefield at the next Classis when delegates from De Wolf’s consistory and delegates from First Church both appeared and requested to be seated. When Classis decided to seat the delegates from First Church (after lengthy debate that lasted days), De Wolf and his supporters, also from other congregations, walked out of Classis. The split then took place in the member churches.
Classis West was the scene of struggle when the announcements of De Wolf’s suspension were sent to the churches. Classis West, most of which favored De Wolf, repudiated the decisions of First Church. That was the occasion for the rift to spread through the congregations beyond the Mississippi.
And so the battle resulted in a schism which rolled through the denomination like a deep chasm in the ground brought about by an earthquake. All the congregations were affected and some congregations were lost completely to the PRC.
When the dust of battle had settled, it became obvious that the results of the split were, from an earthly point of view, disastrous.
The membership of the denomination was sharply reduced. The Yearbook of 1952 lists 24 churches, 29 ministers, 5449 individuals. The Yearbook of 1954 lists 16 churches, 14 ministers, 2353 individuals.
Families and friends had been separated, and the bitterness which all controversy engenders remained for years.
The work of the churches was made much more difficult. Mission work ceased. The Seminary continued, though with a sharply reduced enrollment. The energy of the churches was in a measure devoted to legal battles rather than the work assigned to her by Christ. The Christian schools, supported by the parents of the denomination, were hard hit and had a more difficult struggle to continue. A great battle-weariness settled over the saints. Though victorious, the troops were wounded and bleeding.
Was it worth it?
Well, in a sense the question is inappropriate. For in the final analysis it does not matter at all what happens to us or the churches of which we are a part when the truth of God is the issue. Whatever has to be done must be done when God’s glory, revealed in the truth of His sovereign and particular grace, is threatened by false doctrine. What the cost may be is immaterial and of no account. To ask whether the price was too high to pay is to ask the wrong question.
Nevertheless, God gave the PRC the victory even though at times it seemed as if the denomination was to be reduced to rubble. The victory was, so to speak, by the skin of our teeth; but this is the way God often works. From the controversy emerged, through the work of the Spirit, a denomination stronger, more deeply devoted to her own distinctives, more determined than ever to get on with the work of the Lord, purged from those who troubled her, and ready to move forward when once it had caught its collective breath.
God has blessed us. He rescued us when our cause seemed to be defeated. He has been with us since that time and has given us countless tokens of His favor and love. And above all, He has preserved us in the heritage of the Reformed faith for which our fathers fought so valiantly.