The Breakdown of Doctrinal Discipline In The Netherlands

Our regular readers know that the Standard Bearerhas reported rather frequently on instances of blatantly un-Reformed and heretical teachings on the part of leaders in the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. All of these instances are evidences of on-going deformation in the Dutch churches, a deformation which by this time has reached appalling proportions. Again and again, professors of theology and ministers in good standing in the churches have come out with eye-popping pronouncements about Scripture, about various doctrines, about the Christian’s calling in various spheres of life, to the point that one would think that now at last some ecclesiastical assembly will call this or that man on the carpet and suspend and depose him. But in no single instance, until now, have the churches there taken any disciplinary action. In other words, ecclesiastical discipline with respect to doctrine has broken down. 

The latest example of such a breakdown concerns the heretical teachings of Dr. H. Wiersinga about the doctrine of atonement and reconciliation. Prof. Hanko reported on this matter in All Around Us in the May 1 issue (p. 343). Rev. Herman Wiersinga wrote a doctoral thesis (and received a degree from the Free University!) on “Reconciliation in Theological Discussion.” According to a brief report in the R.E.S. News Exchange of Feb. 23, “The contention of the book is that the Bible teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice was not directed to God but to man. In the author’s view the sacrifice of Christ is not a gift to God that makes God gracious or provides satisfaction but rather God’s great gift of salvation to man by which he reconciles, delivers and converts man. The blood of Jesus Christ speaks of our liberation from a ‘blood-shedding existence.’ The blood of Christ was not offered to God but was a saving, cleansing, and renewing gift of God to man.” Subsequent reports and discussions in some of the Dutch papers have made it abundantly clear that Wiersinga’s teachings are indeed as heretical as first reported. He denies the vicarious nature of Christ’s death and His satisfaction for sin through the bearing of the wrath of God. Reconciliation is given the horizontal twist which is characteristic of the social gospellers. Probably one of Wiersinga’s sharpest critics has been the Rev. J. Hegger, editor of In De Rechte Straat, and himself a converted Roman Catholic and therefore quite understandably offended by this denial of the only sacrifice of Christ. 

It must be remembered that what is especially significant about this instance of heresy is the fact that it involves the theological faculty of the Free University, not only Dr. Wiersinga. For it was by that faculty that Wiersinga was granted his degree of doctor of theology, and that, too, on the basis of this heretical doctoral thesis. Moreover, the theological faculty members are all ordained in the Gereformeerde Kerken, and subject to the provisions of the Formula of Subscription. As has already been remarked in the Netherlands (by Dr. Herman Ridderbos) these faculty members, therefore, bear not only a scientific but also an ecclesiastical responsibility; and the two cannot be separated. The faculty members, therefore, cannot properly approve from a scientific point of view what they have vowed to oppose in the church and according to their ordination vows. In other words, they cannot approve a heretical doctoral dissertation such as Wiersinga’s without becoming co-responsible for Wiersinga’s heresy, and therefore, like Wiersinga, liable to discipline for heresy. In fact, it might be argued that the responsibility of the faculty in such a situation is even heavier than that of Wiersinga. For of all people, these theological professors ought to recognize—and condemn—heresy when they see it! 

And this means, of course, that the Gereformeerde Kerken have come to be confronted by a highly serious situation! 

What has happened? 

The R.E.S. News Exchange carried the following report in its October 26 issue:

The General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands at its September meeting issued a “Synodical Message” concerning the biblical doctrine of reconciliation.

The declaration was occasioned by the recent discussion in the Dutch churches concerning this central doctrine of the Christian faith. The Synod received a number of protests concerning the book of Dr. H. Wiersinga on the doctrine of reconciliation in Reformed theology (see RES News Exchange 2/23/71). Dr. Wiersinga had also lodged a protest with his church council against the teaching of the church confessional standards on reconciliation. The text of the Synod’s declaration follows. 

The General Synod of the Reformed Churches (Dordrecht 1971-72) in session in Lunteren, feels itself under compulsion to issue a statement regarding the central doctrine of reconciliation. 

The examination of new thoughts concerning reconciliation, as these have arisen and have been published; takes place in the proper way by scientific reflection and ecclesiastical process. The carefulness which this requires demands a necessary calmness and time. 

The Synod appeals to the churches to await in trust the results of this testing by the light of the Holy Scripture. At the same time this naturally does not mean that as, long as the above mentioned examination has not yet been concluded there would have to exist. any uncertainty regarding the confession and the church’s preaching on reconciliation with God in the substitutionary power of the suffering and death of Christ our Lord. 

The Synod recognizes herein its oneness with that which the church of all ages has confessed: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. And it understands hereby nothing else than that which is contained in the confessional standards of the Reformed Churches, namely that God in His infinite goodness has sent His Son to be a reconciliation for our sins, has caused all our unrighteousness to fall upon Him who knew no sin and was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, and, converted to God by Him, should lead a new life. Therefore the church praises and adores her Lord as the holy Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

It is the intention of the Synod in this declaration to point to and emphatically affirm in all its continuing reflection on the confession of reconciliation, that which the church has always confessed and the classic formulary for Holy Communion rightly calls the only ground and foundation of our salvation. (RES News Exchange 10/26/71)

At fast glance, this action of the General Synod may seem to be discreet; and Synod’s declaration may seem to have an orthodox, and even a rather sternly orthodox, ring. 

In the first place, however, judging by past performances, this means nothing. Do not forget that only last year the General Synod adopted the utterly contradictory decision in which they plainly found Dr. Kuitert and others to be guilty of heresy, but nevertheless declined to take any disciplinary action. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that also in this instance the Synod will make a similar finding. In fact, I would dare to say that this is quite likely, especially in view of the great influence of the very Amsterdam theologians who are inextricably involved in this case with Wiersinga. I. could even conceive of it that the Synod will make one of those insipid, lukewarm, Laodicea-like, “both . . . and” decisions: the confessions are right, but Dr. Wiersinga also has a point. 

In the second place, even the present declaration of the Synod represents a breakdown of doctrinal discipline, in spite of the fact that Synod seems to reaffirm the confessional doctrine of atonement. 

Why do I say this? 

My first reason is that, according to all that has been reported of Wiersinga’s position and according to all that I have read in the way of criticism of that position, the Synod could have analyzed the heresy of Wiersinga and produced grounds for condemnation just about as quickly as to have prepared the above declaration. In other words, the statement of the second paragraph is false: “The examination of new thoughts concerning reconciliation, as these have arisen and have been published, takes place in the proper way by scientific reflection and ecclesiastical process, The carefulness which this requires demands a necessary calmness and time.” At the very best, the above statement represents the weakness of hesitation. At its worst—and one finally comes to expect the worst, even when he would like to expect better things—it represents an attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It is the typical sop which liberal-minded ecclesiastical assemblies so frequently have thrown to the “poor, unenlightened traditionalists.” But when one’s house is afire, he should not first spend a long time deciding whether there is indeed a fire, and then ponder the question whether or not he will put it out, and then consider dilatorily what means to use. Yet this is what the Synod has done, and, I fear, is doing. Meanwhile, the house is rapidly being destroyed! 

My second reason is undeniably objective, in case you cannot accept the first. It is this: Dr. Wiersinga has himself lodged a protest with his church council against the teaching of the church confessional standards on reconciliation. In other words, if indeed the Synod affirms the confessional teachings, then Dr. Wiersinga is by his own admission a heretic. Why, then, should it require so much carefulness and time to reach a decision?

But what is worse, Dr. Wiersinga is liable to de factosuspension from office. For according to the Formula of Subscription, one does not first publish abroad sentiments which are contrary to the confessions, and then file a protest against the confessions. On the contrary! One first files a gravamen, and that, too, without in the meantime teaching his deviating sentiments either publicly or privately. Failure to follow this promised procedure is in itself sufficient grounds for discipline.

Hence, the Synod is already guilty of “too little and too late.”

As we have already remarked, the above is by no means the first evidence of a breakdown of doctrinal discipline in the GKN. The fact is that by this time those churches are wide open for all kinds of winds of doctrine. The situation is such that by this time the churches are paralyzed, constitutionally unable to cope with heresy any longer. The only hope would be a miraculous and complete about-face. And then, of course, there would be a good many steps to retrace.

Neither does a situation such as that in which the GKN now find themselves arise suddenly. It is the end of a process, more or less gradual.

And what is the moral of the story?

This: Never take the first step in that process!

For it is not the last step that is fatal, but that first step. When once you open the door to false doctrine, there is no stopping—unless, miraculously, you repent and return all the way!

And therefore, and moral of the story is also this: Abiding vigilance and resolute discipline of doctrine are the price of purity of doctrine and preaching!

Let us never forget it!