Prof. Russell Dykstra, pastor of Byron Center PRC in Byron Center, Michigan

Previous article in this series: March 1, 2023, p. 260.

As noted in the last article, in 1924 Herman Hoeksema was the pastor of the largest Christian Reformed Church in that day with over 500 families and 1300 members. He was a regular contributor to The Banner, and a member of the Curatorium of the Seminary. He was unquestionably one the most capable theologians and preachers in the CRC in that day.

But in 1925, Herman Hoeksema was deposed by a Classis of the CRC, as were Revs. Henry Danhof and George M. Ophoff as well as the respective consistories of the three ministers.

A shocking change of direction in the lives of these men and their congregations! It naturally raises the question: How and why did these depositions come about? Facing that question, we focus first on Rev. Hoeksema, and something called the Janssen controversy. The issues that led to the depositions and the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches cannot be understood with knowing something about this controversy.

Although the young and capable Rev. Hoeksema was clearly an up-and-coming minister in the Christian Reformed Churches, deep personal grievances against him arose in connection with the controversy over Dr. Ralph Janssen, Professor of Old Testament studies in Calvin Seminary, a controversy in which Hoeksema was deeply involved.1 Dr. Janssen had been Professor of Old Testament studies in the Theological School of the CRC from 1902 through 1906. At that time he was not reappointed, partly because he was not an ordained minister and partly because there were concerns about his views of Scripture. He went abroad for more education, returned to the United States, and began teaching in another institution. Then in 1914, Janssen was reappointed to the CRC Seminary.

Troubles began in 1919 when four of his fellow professors asked the Curatorium to investigate the teaching of Dr. Janssen in respect to the authority, infallibility, and credibility of Scripture.2 The Curatorium investi-gated, but did not find errors in his teaching, and took the decision that the four professors should have gone to Dr. Janssen before taking the matter to the Curatorium. The four professors then appealed to the Synod in 1920 with their concerns. Before the Synod of 1920 met, the Curatorium asked these professors to submit all their objections in writing, which they did. The Curatorium did another and more complete investigation, after which they exonerated Janssen unanimously.

The four professors pressed on with their appeal to the Synod of 1920 for an investigation. They claimed that Janssen taught 1) that there are exaggerations and inaccuracies in the Scriptures; 2) that many wonders can be explained in large part from natural causes; 3) concerning the Pentateuch, that he believed the foursource theory, and that only those parts specifically ascribed to Moses were written by him; 4) that the Song of Solomon was an oriental love song and not typical of Christ and His church. The Synod of 1920 exonerated Janssen again, but with a negative decision: “…it had not become evident that Doctor Janssen’s instruction was in conflict with the Reformed faith.”

Herman Hoeksema, after supporting Janssen twice in the Curatorium and once at Synod, then came into possession of a set of student notes. What Hoeksema found there raised serious questions in his mind about Janssen’s teachings.3 He began to publish his concerns in his rubric in The Banner and carried on an exchange there with Dr. Janssen. In addition, early in 1921 the four professors printed a pamphlet entitled, “A Further Explanation Concerning the Janssen Matter.” The discussions in The Banner and this pamphlet raised alarms in the denomination. As a result, in June of 1921 the Curatorium faced overtures from eight of the thirteen Classes in the CRC asking for an investigation of Janssen’s teachings.

The Curatorium commissioned a committee to do a thorough study of Janssen’s teachings and report to this body. Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof were part of the seven-man committee. After a thorough study of Janssen’s classroom instruction, the committee split in its conclusions, four to three. Because Janssen refused to cooperate with the committee, they were forced to use individual student notes. The majority, led by Hoeksema and Danhof, issued a detailed, 152-page report (cf. image) explaining and condemning his teaching.4 Their findings are summarized by seven main points, but the first point indicates the essential error: “Dr. Janssen fails, in his theological instruction, to treat the Scriptures throughout as the inspired and infallible Word of God” [emphasis in the report].

A careful study of his teaching indicates that Dr. Janssen had higher-critical views of the Bible. He viewed the various theological disciplines as sciences that sought for truth, rather than as disciplines that are based on the Scripture as truth. In these “sciences,” the investigators must be critical. Even Scripture itself must be evaluated as any other literature as far as authorship, composition, purpose, and more. In addition, he taught that general revelation is incorporated into special revelation, so that, for example, the writings of the heathen could have influenced the Psalms or been incorporated into the law of Moses.

As to the miracles of the Bible, Janssen maintained that they could be explained as God’s work using natural means. Jericho’s walls could have fallen by an earthquake. The miraculous part was the moment that it happened. The water from the rock resulted from Moses striking a rock in the right place and his rod piercing through the surface, allowing the water to flow.

Here it is important to notice that the central support behind his teaching was common grace. Janssen defended his views almost entirely on the basis of common grace. For example, general revelation is the result of common grace, he insisted, and gives man a certain knowledge of God. This general revelation to all men serves special revelation. Thus general revelation also has value in the study of the Bible. As to miracles, he taught that the natural sciences are needed to explain the miracles since God used natural means. It is common grace that allows men to gain their knowledge in these sciences. Thus common grace is necessary to explain the miracles.

While all the above is plain in the classroom material that the committee studied, and briefly alluded to in the majority’s report, the report itself concentrated on Dr. Janssen’s erroneous view of Scripture. It virtually ignored the basis for the errors, namely, common grace.

The aftermath

Largely based on the report of the majority of the investigation committee, the Synod of 1922 (meeting in Orange City, IA) condemned Janssen’s teachings and removed him from his position as professor in the seminary.

With this, Dr. Janssen was finished in the CRC. But he was not without significant support in the churches. And it was commonly reported that his friends and supporters were determined to go after Hoeksema and Danhof.5

On the other hand, as a result of their study of Dr. Janssen’s teaching, Hoeksema and Danhof had become convinced not only that the root error was common grace, but also that it was a deadly serious error.6 In spite of the fact that most leading theologians of the Netherlands (led by Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper) and the CRC in America promoted and developed this teaching, Hoeksema and Danhof began to expose the errors of common grace in their writing and preaching. At that point, the very men who had joined them in condemning Dr. Janssen turned against Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof. All this would lead, with astounding swiftness, to the adoption of the Three Points of Common Grace (1924) and the deposition of the three ministers and their respective consistories. The formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America followed.

More on the common grace controversy and depositions next time.

1 For a complete treatment of the history and the doctrinal controversy, see Herman C. Hanko’s thesis, A Study of the Relation Between the Views of Prof. R. Janssen and Common Grace. Available from the library and bookstore of the Protestant Reformed Seminary. For Hoeksema’s personal reflections, see his editorial written thirty years later, “Of Love and Hatred,” Standard Bearer, vol. 30, pp. 340-41.

2 The four professors were Louis Berkhof, William Heyns, Foppe TenHoor, and Samuel Volbeda. These men had taught seminarian Hoeksema. Hoeksema and Prof. Berkhof were particularly close as is evident from the fact that the latter officiated at Hoeksema’s wedding.

3 Hoeksema made it plain that his opposition to Dr. Janssen was not personal animosity but concern over the doctrine taught in the seminary. He later stated, “When I left school in 1915 I respected Dr. Janssen with whom I had one year of instruction.” In addition, he wrote, “And, strange to say, ever after, Dr. Janssen… regarded…me as his friend.” Hoeksema recounted that whenever a friend of Janssen (Quirinus Breen) visited Hoeksema “in the parsonage on Franklin St. he never failed to bring me the sincere regards of Dr. Janssen.” Hoeksema’s explanation for that? “Because, although I had to become his opponent for the truth’s sake, he knew that I had been honest with him and never did anything behind his back.” (SB, “Of Love and Hatred,” p. 341.)

4 This report is available in English: The Instruction of Prof. Janssen: The Report of the Majority Section of the Investigation Committee. No publication information.

5 This idea that the friends of Janssen were determined to go after Hoeksema and Danhof was relayed to me from the personal testimony of my seminary professors, whose fathers had lived through 1924. It was confirmed by an eighty-year-old neighbor of mine while I was a seminary student in the 1980s. A member of the CRC, he was no supporter of Hoeksema or his theology— his favorite preacher was Billy Graham. Nonetheless, without me asking him, one day he began talking about Hoeksema and the 1920s and confirmed what my professors had told me, namely, that after 1922 the friends of Janssen said: “Let’s get Hoeksema.”

6 Hoeksema’s studies of Janssen’s teaching led him to examine and develop three areas of doctrine that had been affected by the doctrine of common grace. The first is the notion of general revelation. Hoeksema became convinced that there is no such thing as a gracious revelation of God to the ungodly. God’s revelation in creation to the wicked is His wrath and its purpose is to leave unbelieving man without excuse. Second, Hoeksema developed the biblical doctrine of miracles over against Janssen’s common-grace explanation. Third, he rejected any grace (favor) of God to the reprobate. There is one grace, namely saving grace, and it is upon the elect alone. All these developments would have a significant impact on the theology of the Protestant Reformed Churches.