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

Previous article in this series: April 1, 2023, p. 298.

The Janssen controversy in the Christian Reformed Church (1920-22) concerned the erroneous teaching of a professor in the theological school. Dr. Ralph Janssen’s higher critical view of Scripture and his naturalist explanation of miracles were condemned by the CRC Synod of 1922. So serious were his errors that synod removed him as professor. However, his justification for these teachings, namely, common grace, was not addressed either by the special study committee that investigated his teaching or by the Synod of 1922.

Even during the controversy, the Revs. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema saw the underlying relation between Janssen’s errors and common grace, and argued that common grace should be addressed in the report on Janssen’s teaching. The rest of the study committee, however, refused to take issue with common grace. Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema acquiesced.

For historical perspective, be aware that the teaching of common grace was relatively new in 1922. Although the term can be found in earlier theologians such as John Calvin, the concept was developed in a new and different way around the turn of the century. This development occurred primarily in the writings of two significant Reformed theologians in the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Abraham Kuyper unfolded this concept in his theological column in the weekly paper De Heraut (The Herald) from 1895 to 1901. Bavinck wrote his Reformed Dogmatics at about the same time. Common grace was hardly established Reformed doctrine in the 1920s. Nonetheless, one could scarcely find two more influential Reformed theologians in the world in 1920 than Kuyper and Bavinck.

These two theologians had tremendous influence on the Christian Reformed Church. Thousands of their followers emigrated to America and joined the CRC. Virtually every minister in the CRC knew the Dutch language and could read the works of Kuyper and Bavinck. Common grace, it seemed, was simply accepted by most ministers in the CRC.

In fact, some were actively promoting the thinking of common grace in the churches. A number of ministers published a magazine for that purpose, Religion and Culture, which advocated broader acceptance of cultural standards. Their teaching was based on common grace, which, it was averred, was true Calvinism. In the words of Hoeksema, “Calvinism, always known the world over for its doctrine of predestination and particular grace, had been changed overnight into a philosophy of common grace!”1

Hoeksema recounts that there were those in the denomination who were alarmed at this trend of broader acceptance of American culture. He wrote,

Men like Professors L. Berkhof, S. Volbeda, and K. Schoolland and the Reverends Y. P. De Jong, H. J. Kuiper, D. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, frequently discussed the lamentable condition of the churches in general and the rise of this new movement in particular, and for a time they even held their monthly meetings for this purpose. They all agreed that an attempt must be made to save the church from the inroads of Arminianism and from the grave danger of being swallowed up by the world.2

A number of these men, including Danhof and Hoeksema did more than talk. They started a new publication called The Witness, desiring to promote godliness and true Calvinism, as well as address some of the issues raised by Janssen.

In truth, the CRC was being influenced in no smallway by the changing culture of the America. The “Roaring Twenties” was a time of dramatic social and economic change, marked by a notable loosening of morals. In the middle of that decade, the CRC indicated its recognition of the dangerous influence of the entertainment-crazed society with a synodically commissioned “Report on Worldly Amusements.” This was in response to several overtures to the 1926 CRC Synod, one of which stated, “It is the belief of Classis Illinois that the indulgence of worldly amusements, such as the theater- and movie-attendance, dancing and card playing is becoming a serious problem in the life of the church.”3

The “Report” concurred, stating, “If theater- and movie-attendance, dancing and card playing were indulged in only occasionally by members of our churches, consistories could afford to be lenient. But the situation, especially in some localities, is rather serious. Unless resolute measures are taken to combat these particular forms of worldliness, the situation may be irremediable before long” (47).

The CRC Synod of 1928 adopted many resolutions based on the Report and decided to publish it. The Report is worth reading especially because of the research done on the evils of movies and dancing, as well as its documentation of the church’s historical condemnation of these activities. It is noteworthy that the doctrine of the antithesis as separation from the world is weakened by a paragraph on how believers can have a moral common ground based on common grace (15, 16). It also opened the door to the possibility of good drama, and a “clean and wholesome play” (27, 28).

But worldliness was not the only problem, as noted above. A Protestant Reformed member who lived through the controversy of 1924 as a young man, later wrote his recollections in the Beacon Lights. One of the problems he recalled was doctrinal error in the church of his youth:

We ourselves discovered that we were holding to a two-track theology. On the one hand the Reformed view and on the other the Arminian and Pelagian. An example of this was the songs we as young people sang in our Young People’s societies and at various programs. Many of these were pure Arminian such as: “Throw Out the Life Line,” Whosoever Will,” “Jesus is Tenderly Calling” and more. We were never rebuked or admonished for this but certainly should have been.

He goes on to say that “in our debating and discussions on the three points of common grace with fellow Christians it became evident that Arminianism had tak-en deep root, and many accepted the false doctrine of free willism.”4

It should be obvious then, that Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema and others had much reason to be concerned about the spiritual condition of their CRC churches. In addition, they were seeing evil fruits of this relatively new teaching, common grace. After the Synod of 1922 deposed Janssen, Danhof and Hoeksema began to sound the alarm. Their preaching stressed the Reformed doctrines of total depravity, sovereign particular grace, and eternal predestination. In that context they also rejected common grace.

Their objections began to appear in print. Hoeksema had already given some critical evaluation of common grace in his rubric “Our Doctrine” in the official CRC publication, The Banner. That medium was eventually closed to him. Danhof and Hoeksema told the staff of The Witness that they wanted to expand their critique of common grace, but the staff rejected that idea. Thus it was that they began to publish pamphlets, and eventually a book. With the Banner and The Witness closed to their writing on common grace, Danhof and Hoeksema began making plans for publishing a new magazine, the first issue of which came out in October of 1924, with the title the Standard Bearer.

Many of their pamphlets were in response to pamphlets of other CRC ministers critical of Danhof’s and Hoeksema’s rejection of common grace. Rev. Jan Karel VanBaalen wrote a pamphlet entitled Denial of Common Grace, Reformed or Anabaptist? and later, Innovation and Error. In The Witness, Prof. L. Berkhof published an article of great concern entitled “Grace for the Unconverted.” On their side, Hoeksema and Danhof printed three pamphlets—Along Straight Paths, then For the Sake of Justice and Truth, and Not Anabaptist, But Reformed. They also published a book, Of Sin and Grace, a historical and theological critique of Abraham Kuyper’s teaching of common grace.5

At the same time, protests were filed with the respective consistories against the preaching and teaching of Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema. In an amazingly short time, these protests lead to the official adopting of the Three Points of Common Grace by the CRC Synod of 1924, and shortly thereafter, to depositions of consistories and ministers who opposed common grace. To this we turn next time.


1 The Protestant Reformed Churches in America: Their Origin, Early History and Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, 1947), 16.
2 The Protestant Reformed Churches, 17. The list of names here is significant because these very men would later oppose Danhof and Hoeksema in their rejection of common grace. James A. De Jong in his biography, Henry J. Kuiper: Shaping the Christian Reformed Church, 1907-1962 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007) confirms H. J. Kuiper’s great concern about Janssen and about worldliness in the CRC; see especially pages 39-68. But as De Jong notes, when it came to common grace, “it was clear that his [H. J. Kuiper’s] sympathies were not with Hoeksema and Danhof.” In fact, H.J. Kuiper’s consistory brought overtures to Classis Grand Rapids West that included “ask[ing] classis to require the consistories of Hope Church in River Bend and of the First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo to compel their pastors, the Reverend G.M. Ophoff and the Reverend Henry Danhof, to indicate their support of the synod’s statements on common grace” (pp. 56, 57).
3 “Worldly Amusements in the Light of Scripture,” adopted by the CRC Synod in 1928, p.
4. For the rest of the citations, the page numbers are in parentheses in the article. 4 Dick Kooienga, “The Time Around 1924,” Beacon Lights (March, 1975), 9.
5 These are the English titles of all these works that were first published in Dutch. The translated pamphlets of Danhof and Hoeksema were complied and printed in 2015 by the RFPA in The Rock Whence We Are Hewn. The translated book Of Sin and Grace is also available from the RFPA (rfpa.org).