Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Reformed believer esteems highly the unity of the church. “I believe an holy, catholic church,” we confess. The Reformed church rightly condemns schism—division in the church body. The form for adult baptism demands that members reject all heresies and schisms repugnant to the doctrines they confess. Upon the Reformed minister is laid a greater responsibility—he mustrefute all schisms and heresies repugnant to pure doctrine (Formula of Subscription). One of the gross sins for which an officebearer is suspended and deposed is the sin of public schism (Church Order, Art. 80).
The church of Christ is one, and every Reformed church and believer is called upon to manifest that unity as much as possible.
Thus, for a Reformed believer, a secession from a church or group of churches is no small matter. He loves the church, his spiritual mother. He is therefore loyal to her, supports her, and prays for her. Leaving her is painful and is never done without compelling reasons. Those reasons should never be mere personal offense. The believer does not walk away from a church that is still spiritually feeding him. He leaves when it is impossible to remain in the church because she is no longer his spiritual mother. She no longer feeds him. She has forsaken Christ her husband and has become a whore. When that happens, the voice of Christ is no longer heard there. Christ no longer rules. He leaves, and takes His Spirit with Him. At that point the church that was his mother will often wrongfully discipline the faithful member for his stand for truth.
That is what happened in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She lost the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ. A reformation was necessary. Absolutely necessary.
But that raises a question. How did such dreadful apostasy prevail in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands? This was the church that had rejected the pernicious heresy of Jacob Arminius, that had called the rest of the Reformed church world together in 1618 to write a careful and united rejection of the error of the Remonstrants—the Canons of Dordrecht. At that same Great Synod, the Reformed churches officially adopted the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession as creeds. They adopted a church order that set forth the principles and right practices of Reformed (biblical) church government. That extraordinary synod also decided that every officebearer must sign the creeds, a formula of subscription, promising to maintain and defend all the doctrines taught in these three creeds. How did such a church, with such Reformed credentials, such a rich heritage, and such glorious confessions, apostatize and, finally, put out and persecute Reformed preachers and members?
The Reformed churches obviously did not apostatize in a day or a year. The letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2, 3) indicate the start, even the principle of apostasy. The first letter (to the angel of the church of Ephesus) reproves the church for the loss of her first love. The King of the church commands, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” And then He adds this warning, “or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place.” Dreadful warning for the church of all ages.
The Reformed Church of the Netherlands lost her first love. She had stood valiantly for the truth and put out the false teachers. The truths of sovereign grace were carefully explained and defended in her confessions. The churches continued officially to maintain the Reformed faith, but gradually the zeal for the truth waned. The confession was there, but the will to fight for it weakened steadily. The spirit was willing, perhaps, but the flesh was weary.
Thus the churches entered into a spiritual slump, often described as dead orthodoxy. This was aided and abetted by the prosperity in the Netherlands, for prosperity tends to make the church earthly-minded. The decline was fed by the rationalistic philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza. Descartes came to the Netherlands in 1629 and began teaching that the only way to true knowledge is to doubt everything. Spinoza is considered the father of modern higher critical views of the Bible. These men helped undermine the very foundation of the church—the authority of Scripture.
As a result, serious errors appeared in the church already in the 1600s. A certain Rev. B. Bekker, influenced by Descartes, published a book in 1691 in which he denied the existence of angels and devils. A theological professor named H.A. RoÃ«ll rejected the term “generation of the Son” in his Christology. He maintained that Jesus is called “Son of God” because He had a “divine mission.” But when he was opposed by fellow ministers and professors and rightly charged with the ancient heresy of Arianism (denying the essential deity of the Son), the State of Friesland banned discussion on the issue. Prof. RoÃ«ll was allowed to continue teaching theology.
Error abounded. Not only liberalism, but outright modernism grew and prospered. In his history, The Reformed Church in the Netherlands, Maurice Hansen describes the kinds of errors found in the Reformed churches.*
[T]he cardinal doctrines of religion underwent a wondrous transformation. Election, the Trinity, justification by faith in Christ, were wholly rejected as absurd and dangerous to morality. The Deity of Christ is only his God-likeness. Original sin is merely a corruption of morals. Depravity is simply weakness. Regeneration is no more than a moral improvement. Inspiration is only a higher degree of enlightenment. Geology shows that Moses was wrong. Anatomy and physics indicate the supremacy of matter. The progress of Greek literature shows that the New Testament is full of mistakes.
For the faithful in that day the question was not, Was reformation needed? but, Would the church of Christ in the Netherlands survive? Would the light of the Reformation be so soon snuffed out in the Netherlands, only a hundred years or so after the great Synod of Dordt? Again, the questions—Why? And why so soon? And why could not the Reformed men in the Netherlands condemn the errors and put out the false teachers?
The answer contains the key to much of the apostasy in the Netherlands. The church of Christ in the Netherlands was not free to follow her Head, her Master and King. She was under the domination of the state.
The root of this problem can be traced to the very beginning of the Reformation in the Netherlands. At the dawn of the Reformation, the Netherlands was under the control of Spain, then ruled by Philip, who also sat on the throne as emperor. Roman Catholic Spain was virtually untouched by the Protestant Reformation. Philip, a staunch supporter of the Church of Rome and the pope, vowed never to be king over heretics, by which he meant Protestants. He did his utmost to stamp out (brutally) the cause of the Reformation in the Netherlands.
However, his repressive measures in the Netherlands led to open revolt against Spain. As a result, the cause of the Reformation and the cause of liberation from Spain were closely intertwined. The one came with the other. No doubt God used the revolt to give the Reformed churches in the Netherlands freedom from Rome’s oppression. But the price was high. The government controlled the church buildings. The government paid the salaries of ministers. And the old maxim holds true, whoever holds the purse strings has control.
The great danger of the state’s domination of the church became abundantly plain in the Arminian controversy at the turn of the seventeenth century. The orthodox wanted to condemn the error and put out the heretics, but they could not call an ecclesiastical gathering with the authority to accomplish this. It took many years for the churches to gain the state’s permission to hold the national synod in Dordrecht in 1618-1619. At that synod, the churches adopted a church order that would have given the church sole authority over her own affairs. However, the government refused to approve the new church order and insisted on the right to dominate the church.
The goal of the church is radically different from that of the state. The church is committed to preaching the truth of the Scriptures and rejecting all errors. The state wants peace. Thus in the Netherlands the government pressed for tolerance in the church. Time after time, when heresy arose in the church, and the faithful defended the truth, exposed the error, and called for discipline, their efforts were stymied by the state. No more discussion. No discipline. Get along. Toleration was the watchword.
Thus the two hundred years after Dordt is a sad history of decline morally, spiritually, and doctrinally. An indication of the decline is seen in the new hymns that were forced upon the churches— Arminian, modernistic hymns.
The end of the eighteenth century witnessed the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power in France, and his subsequent subjugation of the Netherlands. This foreign government cut the church loose from the state. But this was short lived. The eventual defeat of Napoleon enabled William V of the house of Orange to return to the Netherlands. The Dutchmen were so overjoyed to be free of the French rule that they made William the first official king of the Netherlands (in 1813).
William had spent nearly nineteen years in exile in England. He liked the relationship of the church and state in England, where the king was officially the head of the church of England. William moved to impose the same upon the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. He insisted on the right of the government to appoint members of consistories, classes, and synods. In many cities these ecclesiastical gatherings became boards controlled by the state.
Along with this, the government officially decreed freedom of religion and pressed for tolerance. William determined that toleration be practiced also within the Reformed churches. Under his guidance, the synodical board amended the form that all officebearers were required to sign in which they promised agreement with the creeds. In the form adopted at the Synod of Dordt, each officebearer affirmed that he believed and would both uphold and defend all the doctrines found in the Reformed Confession because they are in harmony with the Bible. After 1816, officebearers merely promised to maintain and defend the doctrines of the confessions insofar as they agreed with the Bible.
This change in the form of subscription was monumental and devastating. It meant, practically speaking, that each man would be allowed to decide for himself which doctrines of the confessions were biblical. As critics pointed out, even Jews and Romanists could sign the form. The creeds became meaningless. The Reformed Church was effectively creedless! But a church that is not bound by Reformed confessions is not Reformed.
This was the dire and woeful state of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the 1830s. It seemed that the Reformation was over and done in the Netherlands.
Yet God was preparing to reform His church. He raised up men of stamina and strength. He brought them to the convicting knowledge of the glorious Reformed truths so long neglected. Once again the doctrines of sovereign particular grace were preached. The cross of Christ was magnified and Christ honored. And the sheep, hearing the voice of the good Shepherd, flocked to the preaching of deCock and Scholte and the handful of men raised up by God.
By the power of preaching, God reformed His church. The Secession of 1834 was a true reformation. The church returned to the confessions. The church returned to the Psalms. The church was freed from governmental control and could submit herself to Christ her King.
The way was difficult beyond the comprehension of most twenty-first century Christians. God’s people suffered horribly at the hands of the apostate church and the government. Adding to the misery were the bitter conflicts fought within the Secession churches.
With the Secession of 1834, the God-ordained reformation of the church was not finished. As the Lutheran reformation required the further refinement and precision of Calvin and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, so the Secession would need the doctrinal advances of an Abraham Kuyper and the Doleantie. But the Secession was a glorious, hard-fought reformation for all that.
We are honored to number ourselves among the sons and daughters of the Secession. We thank God for preserving His church and His truth by this reformation of 1834. May He continue to raise up men and women who are willing to follow in the footsteps of these saints, sacrificing all for the sake of the Reformed truth that was reaffirmed in 1834.
* Hansen, Maurice G., The Reformed Church in the Netherlands, New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Church in America, 1884, pp. 253-254.