Splinter or Reformation?

Recently a new church formation came into being in The Grand Rapids area. It is called the Christian Reformed Church. It was initiated by the Rev. Vincent Licatessi, who resigned as pastor of the Godwin Heights Christian Reformed Church, along with an “interim committee” of likeminded men. I have no statistics as to the actual size of this new movement at present; nor will I pass along any of the many rumors about its size. I do know that on July 16 there was a rather well-attended meeting held in the DAV Hall in south Grand Rapids, at which meeting the Rev. Licatessi gave an explanation of the reasons for this new church formation and at which there was opportunity to indicate in writing one’s desire to join the movement. The address of Rev. Licatessi given at this meeting I have heard by tape recording. I do know, too, that according to published announcements, the new group is continuing to hold its morning service at the same DAV Hall, while the evening service was so well attended that it became necessary to seek larger quarters. Perhaps—although I hardly think it necessary for myself, and although the other party can speak for himself—I should also scotch the rumor that the Rev. Licatessi, the Rev. Gordon Girod (of Seventh Reformed Church), and I had a meeting prior to the formation of this group. It always amazes me how such gossip gets its start! 

However, The Standard Bearer customarily comments on events in the Reformed community; and, besides, several readers have asked for comment and evaluation on this subject. 

As far as the Rev. Licatessi’s speech on July 16 is concerned, I would summarize and characterize it as follows, without going into detail: 

1) It impressed me not as bitter and rancorous, but as a rather raucous and almost frenzied recounting of various ills in the Christian Reformed denomination and of the futility of fighting these ills from within. There was a great deal of emphasis on this, and the speech was in this sense largely negative in character. 

2) It was the avowed purpose of the speaker that this new movement shall live by the infallible Scriptures and the Three Forms of Unity. 

3) Although this was not stated by the speaker, my total impression was that the Rev. Licatessi wants to turn the clock back approximately twenty years to what were the better days of the Christian Reformed Church, before what some have called “the winds of change” began to blow through the denomination. And although 1924 and the Three Points were not as such mentioned by the Rev. Licatessi, for one thing the very failure to mention them was significant; and for another, the speaker made it plain near the beginning of his speech that he wants to hold on to the error of the well-meant offer in order that he may be “evangelistic.” 

Now what shall we say of this new ecclesiastical movement? 

Obviously, judging from its name, it claims to be a reformation and claims to be faithful to the principles of the Reformation, i.e., to the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. 

And this raises the first question, namely, is this indeed a reformation? Or is it a splinter? 

In answer to this question, I would emphasize, first of all, that reformation by way of separation is always a very serious matter. It is a step which may ‘be taken only when it has been made impossible for those concerned to strive any longer for reformation from within (as was the case with us when we were cast out in 1924), or when it has become abundantly evident that conditions are such in a given church-communion that reformation from within is utterly impossible and that there is no other course open than to separate in obedience to the Word of God and the confessions. 

In connection with this, in the second place, I cannot find myself in basic agreement with, nor do I find the fundamental question touched on in one of the criticisms made by the Rev. W. Haverkamp in De Wachter, namely, that Rev. Licatessi failed to walk the way of protest and appeal to the end. The fact as such may be true; going by my memory, the only appeal in recent years which I can recall in which Rev. Licatessi was involved at the synodical level was one involving the use of the Godwin Heights church building by the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen. Nevertheless, I do not find the criticism pertinent. Here are my reasons: 

1) I believe there is rather clear evidence of the futility of protest and appeal in significant cases of doctrinal deviation, and, in connection therewith a breakdown of doctrinal discipline and unity in the Christian Reformed denomination. Witness the appeal of N. Bierema against Prof. Sweetman, which was utterly futile. Witness the protracted Dekker Case, in which it was impossible over and over again to get any doctrinal judgment by the Synod. Witness the infallibility case of several years earlier, which ended also, at bottom, in a whitewash. As I observe the Christian Reformed scene—and I am writing about matters of public record, and not about personalities—I can only come to the conclusion that the way of protest and appeal is a futile one. Those who wish to stem the tide of doctrinal deviation have repeatedly found this course of doing it closed. Mark you well, I do not believe that anyone may remain within a denomination, find himself in disagreement with it and its policies, refuse to walk the way of protest and appeal, and meanwhile complain of all the ills and the futility. This is not right. It is not right toward the church. It is not right and good for the individual member and his children. Then it is far better to declare one’s self and to separate. 

2) I believe that the fundamental cleavage—and reformation—came in 1924, that since that time it has been principally futile, doctrinally, church politically, and ethically, to bring about reformation within the Christian Reformed Church UNLESS such reformation would deal with 1924’s doctrinal and church political sins. With regard to the latter, the Christian Reformed denomination has to this date shown absolute intransigence, though approached on the subject more than once by the Protestant Reformed Churches. For this reason, too, I would never insist that a Christian Reformed brother or sister who sees this issue must try to fight the battle of 1924 all over again before separating. That reformation has been accomplished; the cleavage at that time was fundamental. He who has learned to see this need only declare himself and separate. 

But this brings us, in the third place, squarely before the issue. Reformation always involves return. It is fundamentally repentance. It is a forsaking of the wrong path and a choosing and walking in the right path. It is a forsaking and a repudiation of the way of the lie and unrighteousness, and a choosing and walking in the way of the truth and righteousness. Reformation is in its deepest root God-centered. Even as repentance, it is fundamentally a return to God! It is a return to and a seeking of God’s name, God’s honor and glory, God’s Word, God’s truth, God’s precepts, God’s Zion. 

As such, reformation in the true sense of the word can never be a matter of degree, a half-way measure. Principally, it is an all-or-nothing proposition! It is a fundamental turning about! Even as it is principally impossible to repent of some sin, but not of all sin; even as it is true of the sinner who repents of one sin, but attempts to cling to another sin that he has not really repented at all; so it is also with ecclesiastical reformation: those who repudiate some ills but who do not repudiate all and do not return wholly to the way of the truth do not accomplish genuine reformation. 

Thus, for example, to reform on the score of theistic evolution and the denial of the authority and infallibility of Scripture, but to cling to the error of general atonement is not genuine reformation. To reform on the score of general atonement, but to cling to the error of a general, well-meant offer of the gospel is not genuine reformation. To repudiate the error of the well-meant offer, but to cling to the error of denying the antithesis by maintaining that there is a common, non-saving grace of God to the reprobate is not genuine reformation. 

The deepest reason for this is very simple. Even as God is One, so also the truth is one. Reformation is committed to the truth, not merely to some truths. And while it may be possible for a time to repudiate some errors and to return to some truths, this does not constitute genuine reformation. The latter, because it is committed to the truth, must needs repudiate all errors and embrace all the manifold truths of God’s Word. 

And it is precisely on this score that the movement known as the Christian Reformation Church is to be faulted.

In 1924 the Christian Reformed Church departed from the truth of God’s Word and our Reformed Confessions through its adoption of the Three Points of Common Grace, and with it, the adoption of the error of the general, well-meant offer of salvation to all who hear the preaching of the gospel. Moreover, this serious departure from the truth has led to a multiplication of ills in the denomination which was our spiritual mother. On the side of common grace, it has led to many errors which may be classed in general under a synthesizing, world-conforming tendency. On the side of the error of the well-meant offer, it has led most recently to the error of general atonement in the so-called Dekker Case. 

But as mentioned earlier, the Rev. Licatessi left the impression that he only wants to turn the clock back about twenty years; and he not only did not repudiate the errors of 1924, but he explicitly stated that he wanted to keep the idea of the offer of the gospel. But to accomplish genuine reformation and hold to the errors of 1924 are mutually exclusive. It may be possible in a sense to turn the clock back twenty years, but this will only result in starting over the very cycle through which the Christian Reformed denomination has already passed during those twenty years. What is really necessary is not to turn the clock back—no, not even fifty years to pre-1924 days—for that is after all impossible. But what is necessary is genuine reformation, that is, wholehearted and complete return to the truth. 

In this same connection, in the fourth place, I call attention to the fact that for any who are interested in reformation it is not necessary to constitute the church anew, to form a new church communion. I repeat: reformation was accomplished in 1924! At that time the Protestant Reformed Churches were constituted; and, by the grace of God, we have remained faithful to the Reformed heritage ever since, and we still stand as a beacon, beckoning those who wholeheartedly desire to hold to the Reformed faith! It is not good, it is not right, it is not confessionally proper for any who are of the same household of faith to form all kinds of independentistic movements. For those who are interested in genuine reformation and who live in the area of the Protestant Reformed Churches, those churches stand open. And for those Reformed brethren and sisters who do not live in such an area and who are interested in genuine reformation, the Protestant Reformed Churches stand ready, through their home missions labor, to assist them in constituting anew the congregation of Jesus Christ in accord with our Reformed faith, and, I may add, to supply them with ministers of the gospel who have had a thorough training at a genuinely Reformed seminary!

Regrettably, with application to the Christian Reformation Church, the question which stands at the head of this editorial must be answered: Not Reformation, but Splinter.