* The text of the address given at the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) on September 22, 2011 at Faith Protestant Reformed Church, Jenison, MI.
In the last few days of September and the first three days of October, 1951, that is, sixty years ago to the month and almost to the day, the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) took the most important decisions in their history to that date, indeed, to the present day. By votes consistently of nine to seven—the slimmest majority possible, one vote—the synod adopted a document called “The Declaration of Principles.”
Herman Hoeksema, who had led the fight for the adoption of the Declaration, with his colleague, George M. Ophoff, certainly regarded the adoption of the Declaration as the most important decision the PRC had taken to that date. Writing in the Standard Bearer of November 1, 1951, immediately after synod had adopted the Declaration, Hoeksema said this about the synod: “[It] will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most important synods—if not the most important—that to date was ever held.” The importance of the synod, of course, was the adoption of the Declaration.
The importance of the Declaration for the PRC is evident. The adoption of the Declaration was the occasion (note well: I do not say cause, but occasion) of a grievous schism—the most dangerous, distressing de-nomination-wide event in the PRC from our founding to the present. In direct response to the Declaration, some two thirds of the members of the PRC, including ministers, separated from the denomination.
The importance of the Declaration for the PRC was also that it preserved the remnant—those few who were left when the majority departed—in the gospel of sovereign grace, which had been the origin of the churches in 1924.
Contemporary theological developments in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, especially in North America (which is today the heartland of Reformed Christianity in the world), show that the decisions adopting the Declaration were also of the greatest importance for the maintenance of the Reformed faithin all the world, not only in the PRC.
Fifty years before the then-Orthodox Presbyterian theologian Norman Shepherd unleashed the heresy of the federal vision on the community of conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the Declaration of Principles exposed and rejected that doctrine as false, on the basis of the Reformed confessions. Whereas all other Reformed churches today stand helpless before the covenant heresy that calls itself the federal vision, armed with the Declaration the PRC resist that heresy, and defeat it.
It is strange, therefore, and wrong, that so little attention is paid to the Declaration by members of the PRC, indeed, that it is virtually a forgotten document in the PRC. We largely ignore the anniversaries of its adoption. We seldom refer to it. Few study it. I fear that many younger members of the PRC are ignorant of it.
There are reasons for this strange slighting of that important document.
In the bitter internal warfare (and “warfare” is not too strong a word) leading up to, attending, and then following on the adoption of the Declaration, the enemies of the Declaration were largely successful in portraying the Declaration as the unnecessary cause of all the trouble and misery in the PRC.
After the schism occasioned by the Declaration, even some who steadfastly confessed the truth of sovereign grace and remained loyal members of the PRC questioned the necessity of the Declaration.
In addition, it is not impossible that the religious climate of our day, which cries up peace and unity and decries doctrinal precision and controversy, influences members of the PRC, so that there is distaste for, and aversion to, the Declaration. The Declaration is a monument to everything that contemporary religion disavows.
Whatever the reasons, the Declaration does not have the place in the consciousness—and in the heart—of the members of the PRC that it ought to have.
This is changing. God is using the contemporary heresy of the federal vision to stir up in us renewed appreciation for the Declaration; clearer understanding of the fundamental issues the Declaration addresses and settles; and, therefore, also more zeal to study the document.
The title of this article describes it as a commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Declaration. We commemorate events that are good, important, and beneficial. The Spirit of truth was at work in the adoption of the Declaration, preserving and developing the gospel of grace—preserving the gospel of grace in the PRC exactly with regard to the issues of the covenant raised by the federal vision.
The document itself is a glorious testimony to the gospel—a testimony to the gospel exactly in those respects that the federal vision denies.
The Declaration has been a blessing to the PRC. Down the years it has had a powerful influence on the PRC, whether or not it was studied. The ministers have all preached the doctrine of the covenant as set forth in the Declaration. They have condemned, or at least avoided, the covenant doctrine that the Declaration condemns—the covenant doctrine that the federal vision is vigorously promoting, defending, and developing.
A Brief History of the Adoption of the “Declaration”
Synod of 1951
The Declaration cannot be understood apart from the history of its adoption. Twenty-five years after the founding of the denomination over the doctrinal controversy in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) concerning common grace, the PRC were engaged in a battle for their life. This battle was fought at the synod of 1951—a recessed synod that ran from June to the beginning of October. The issue was the adoption of a document called the Declaration of Principles of the PRC.
The physical existence of the denomination was in jeopardy. Many ministers and consistories openly warned of a split if the Declaration was adopted. It was evident that a sizable majority of ministers and members strongly opposed the Declaration. Virtually all of Classis West—one of only two classes making up the denomination—not only opposed the Declaration, but also threatened separation, if the Declaration was adopted. Outside observers, especially in the CRC (where the wish was father to the thought), predicted the demise of the hated PRC.
If the Declaration were not adopted, the spiritual existence of the PRC would have been sacrificed. The churches would have opened themselves to an influx of members—Dutch immigrants in Canada from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) (RCNlib)—whose strongly held covenant doctrine would eventually have obliterated the distinctive confession of the PRC. Thus, the PRC would have succumbed to a doctrine of universal, resistible grace in the sphere of the covenant. This doctrine contradicts the doctrine of particular, sovereign grace, which is the PRC’s right of existence before the face of God in the community of Reformed churches.
Just before the meeting of the synod of 1951, at which the Declaration was to be adopted or rejected, Hoeksema wrote, in the April 15, 1951 issue of theStandard Bearer: “If our next synod should dare to reject it, I see no longer any hope for the future of our PRC as remaining distinctively Reformed.” He added: “Hence, ‘with malice toward none,’ I shall fight for it.”
The synod of 1951 adopted the Declaration.
Adoption was a slow, almost agonizing process. Synod did not adopt the document as a whole, but section by section.
There was this to the credit of the synod. It was a deliberative assembly. Both advocates and opponents of the Declaration raised and pressed their arguments. They responded to each other’s arguments—at length. The synodical rule limiting a speech to ten minutes was annulled, or ignored, or grossly transgressed. Leading the fight to adopt the Declaration were the two seminary professors, Hoeksema and Ophoff (both delegates from Classis East, since Hoeksema was pastor of First Church, Grand Rapids and Ophoff was an elder in this congregation). There were two sides, ominous for the future unity of the denomination: Classis West versus Classis East. One delegate from Classis West would vote with the eight delegates from Classis East to gain the adoption of the Declaration.
As in the great tragic plays of Shakespeare, there occurred a moment of “comic relief.” In the midst of the heated debate, with the existence of the churches at stake, someone moved “to instruct all to abstain from smoking in this room.” Wonderful to relate, in that age of pipes and cigars as virtually a badge of Dutch Reformed orthodoxy, the motion carried.
The result was schism (not the result of the motion to ban smoking, but the result of the motion to adopt the Declaration)—the schism that had been threatened by some, and feared by others. The schism took place, not at once, but two years later, in the fall of 1953. Because the synod of 1951 finally adopted the Declaration late in the year, at the continued session of synod in October, protests against the Declaration could not be brought until the synod of 1953. The synod of 1953 was deadlocked. Every vote was eight to eight, the East voting against the West, and the West, against the East. Synod, therefore, recessed until the spring of 1954, more out of despair than hope, placing all the protests against the Declaration in the hands of a committee for advice.
Before synod could reconvene, however, the schism happened, in the late summer and early fall of 1953. How the schism occurred is not now our interest. Suffice it to say that the immediate cause was two doctrinal statements by one of the minister-enemies of the Declaration. These statements expressed the conditional theology that the Declaration condemned and that Classis East judged heretical.
Synod of 1950
Our interest is the Declaration, and for right understanding of that document it is important to know also the history that led up to the controversial adoption of the Declaration by the synod of 1951.
The action that led to the writing and adopting of the Declaration was a request to the synod of 1950 by the denominational mission committee, that synod “draw up a form that may be used by those families requesting organization into a Protestant Reformed congregation.” The mission committee added: “This would serve to remove all misunderstanding and aid toward unity” (Acts of Synod [of the] PRC, 1950, 54).
This request arose from work that the mission committee was doing with Dutch immigrants in Canada. These immigrants carried with them from the Netherlands strong convictions concerning the covenant, derived from the teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder and the RCNlib. The RCNlib had split from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands only a few years earlier over the very same issues concerning the covenant that are addressed by the Declaration.
Understandably, these potential members of the PRC wanted to know, expressly asked, in fact, whether the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the “Covenant and Baptism” would be binding on them, should they join the PRC.
The origin of the Declaration in this request to synod by the mission committee of the denomination refuted the charge by the enemies of the Declaration that its adoption was illegal. In defense of the legality of its adoption of the Declaration, synod appealed to Articles 30 and 51 of the church order. Article 30 requires the major assembly (which a synod is) to deal with matters that “pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.” Article 51 attributes to the “general synod” the authority to “regulate” the “missionary work of the churches.”
A committee of pre-advice presented the 1950 synod of the PRC with a very brief response to this request from the mission committee. The committee called this brief response a “clear-cut expression [of what the PRC required of the Dutch immigrants and of others who would join the PRC].” This brief statement would have informed the mission committee and the Dutch immigrants that in the PRC it is binding doctrine that the promise of the covenant “is not general,” but is “particular, that is, it pertains only to the elect of God” (Acts of Synod, 1950, 54).
This brief response addressed the fundamental issue in the controversy over the covenant between the RCNlib and the PRC, and would have decided the issue correctly. Hoeksema was not a member of this committee of pre-advice.
Synod did not adopt this advice. Rather, it referred the matter back to the committee, adding Hoeksema and Ophoff to the committee. This happened on Friday.
The following Monday, the committee of pre-advice presented for adoption the Declaration of Principles, calling it by this name. The document, therefore, was written over one weekend, very likely in one day—Saturday. The synod of 1951 would revise the document somewhat, especially by adding a preamble and by inserting a couple of important paragraphs in section three. Basically, however, the Declaration in its present, final form, is the document presented to the synod of 1950.
The author of the Declaration was Hoeksema. The rest of the committee may have added a word or crafted a phrase, but, as Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, Herman Hoeksema was the author of the Declaration of Principles.
Synod 1950 adopted the Declaration provisionally. On the advice of Hoeksema, it postponed the decisiveadoption to the synod of 1951. The purpose of the postponement was to give the churches time to study the document and weigh in on its contents.
In view of the bitter opposition to the Declaration that would immediately surface in the papers and pulpits of the PRC and in view of the storm of controversy that would arise, culminating in the knock-down, drag-out fight at the synod of 1951, and, eventually, in the schism of 1953, it is curious, indeed intriguing, that the synod of 1950 adopted the Declaration provisionally without much debate and with little or no dissent. Only one delegate voted against adopting the Declaration in 1950.
One other aspect of the provisional adoption of the Declaration by the synod of 1950 must be mentioned. Although decisive adoption was put off to 1951, in the meantime the Declaration would function as a “working hypothesis for our mission committee and for our missionaries in the organization of churches” (Acts of Synod, 1950, 90).
This aspect of the provisional adoption of the Declaration by the synod of 1950 is important for two reasons. First, it helps to explain the fierce opposition by many Protestant Reformed ministers between the synods of 1950 and 1951, whereas they did not object at the synod of 1950. The RCNlib and the immigrants in Canada, who were well aware of the decisions of the synod of 1950, informed these Protestant Reformed ministers that there would be no missions among the “liberated” immigrants, no church growth for the PRC, and no ecumenical relations with the RCNlib, if the Declaration were in force.
Second, the Protestant Reformed minister whose heretical statements expressing the doctrine of a conditional covenant were the direct cause of the schism in 1953 made the first of his statements after the provisional adoption of the Declaration with its condemnation of the doctrine of a conditional covenant promise. He preached the first of his statements advocating a conditional covenant in the spring of 1951. He preached the second of his heretical statements after the decisive adoption of the Declaration. In addition to being heretical, his teaching was deliberate, public contravention of settled and binding synodical decisions.
Controversy before the Synod of 1950
The request of the mission committee for a form to be used for organizing churches came to the synod of 1950 in circumstances of controversy within the PRC regarding the covenant. The issue was the unconditionality or conditionality of the covenant of grace. Hot already in 1950, the controversy became hotter after the synod of 1950, until it boiled over into the schism of 1953.
The controversy was carried on in the two magazines that circulated among the Protestant Reformed people, the Standard Bearer, which contended for the unconditional covenant, and Concordia, which contended for a conditional covenant. Ministers engaged in the controversy in their sermons, virtually every Sunday. As I well remember, as a teenager in those days, the controversy raged in households, in extended (and even not so extended) families, and between former friends, all of whom were as yet members of the PRC.
Advocates of a conditional covenant began the controversy. Late in 1947, one of the ministers determined to introduce a conditional covenant into the PRC began defending the doctrine of a conditional covenant, and criticizing the doctrine of the unconditional covenant. He contended for a conditional covenant in the newly created church paper, ironically named Concordia. The name described it as seeking peace and unity. The motto spread at large across the top of the cover of every issue was Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how Good and Pleasant for Brethren to Dwell Together in Unity.” The magazine became the instrument of war and division, the worst war and division—war and division in the church of Jesus Christ.
Only then, and in express response to the articles in Concordia, did Hoeksema begin defending the unconditional covenant in the Standard Bearer, as well as criticizing the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
The provocative articles in Concordia were precipitated by the visit to the PRC earlier in 1947 by the Dutch theologian and leading churchman of the RCNlib, Klaas Schilder. The PRC invited him on behalf of ecumenicity and missions. The PRC welcomed him with open arms as a theologian with whom the PRC were one. Schilder spoke at officebearers’ conferences in October and November, 1947. He traveled throughout the denomination, preaching in the congregations of the PRC (although carefully he referred to his preaching as only bringing a word of edification), lecturing to audiences of Protestant Reformed people, and, especially, talking privately to the Protestant Reformed ministers.
Wherever he went, Schilder promoted his doctrine of a conditional covenant with all baptized children of believers alike. He made no secret of his detestation of the covenant doctrine of Hoeksema and the PRC.
The effect of the visit by this personable man and renowned theologian was sympathy for Schilder’s doctrine of the covenant. Many of the ministers were eager for the reception of the Dutch immigrants with their convictions about a conditional covenant. In the womb of this history was conceived, and out of this history was born, the Declaration, in as difficult and bloody a birth as ever there has been.
A lovely child, really!
But despised by the distant relatives of the PRC to this day! And not always and everywhere warmly embraced by the members of the PRC!
At best, a neglected child, among us!
Ought this to be?
Let us briefly examine the contents of the Declaration.
… to be continued.