Slabbert Le Cornu is married to Dorothea, and they have three daughters: Joanette (6), Hannelie (3) and Doret (1). He is fourth-year theological student at the Reformed Churches of South Africa’s Theological School, in Potchefstroom. They are members of the Reformed Church, Potchefstroom-South. Slabbert is the founder and director of Die Esra Instituut (‘The Esra Institute’), which is a teaching ministry to advance the biblical-reformed faith and worldview in the world today. He is also the editor of the magazine Die Esra Verslag (‘The Ezra Report’). For further information, he can be contacted at: email@example.com
In this section, I would like to mention three synods of the GKSA, which in my opinion made decisions that have radically altered the direction of these churches in 1939, 1985, and 2003.
As mentioned above, the Reformed church that arrived at the Cape in the seventeenth century was a Psalm-singing church. They followed Article 69 of the Synod of Dordt strictly, which stated that the 150 Psalms must be sung, together with some six other hymns (five scriptural songs and the Apostles’ Creed)1 . Any other hymns were to be abolished. In a very important and informative article, emeritus-pastor, the Rev. LS Kruger, shows clearly that the Dordt fathers, which included the synods of Dordtrecht (1578), Middelburg (1581), and Dordrecht (1618/19), used the name ‘hymns’ for all songs that were not part of the 150 Psalms. This would then include the scriptural songs like the songs of praise by Mary and Simeon. The scriptural songs were included in Article 69 because of the pressure of the state, and not because the churches felt the need for ‘NT songs.’ It is also important to mention that the list of six hymns that was given was not given as a justification for introducing as many new songs as possible, but in fact to limit it to only those six hymns. Many believers have forgotten or have never heard of this historical background. When the Rev. Postma helped reestablish the Reformed church here in SA, he himself made this shift when he said that ‘songs that find their text in the Bible, are the best and safest.’ Later theologians and historians used this shift of Postma away from Dordt to justify the introduction of many other scriptural songs.
Irrespective of that, the GKSA was until 1939 mostly an exclusively psalm-singing church, with the exception of the six hymns. At the Synod of 1939 it was decided that a collection of ‘Enige Gesange’ (‘A Few Hymns’) would be added to the Psalmbook, which also led to the following additional sentence to Article 69: “…Other Hymns (scriptural songs) which the Synod have approved are entrusted to the local churches to decide on.”
What was the reason for this sudden urge to sing scriptural songs other than the Psalms? One can only speculate at this point, but a possible clue could be found in the Acts of the Synod of 1939, when the synod asked for scriptural songs ‘especially for Christian feast days.’ This meant that Article 67 (concerning feast days), which has never been dealt with biblically and was in fact tolerated through the centuries, called for ‘scriptural songs’ and especially hymns. Intentionally or unintentionally, it was believed that the Psalmbook was not sufficient for “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us …” (Article 7, Belgic Confession), and by instituting feast days, such as Christmas, which the Scripture does not command (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 96), the churches felt that they had to invent some songs to make up for that which could not be found in Scripture. Hymns were thus needed for Christmas and other festive days.
It is my own opinion that this decision made by great Calvinistic men is part of the reason why the GKSA is currently facing such a crisis. Why would the Psalms not be sufficient for singing about the ‘salvation facts’ of our Lord Jesus Christ? Could it be that even way back in 1939 theologians and preachers were beginning to doubt whether the Psalms were really Messianic, and, more importantly, if they were, were they not Messianic enough to be sufficient for all our worship? The 2001 rhymed Psalmbook openly confesses that the Psalms are not Messianic (it uses footnotes to explain why this is so, mentioning only, for example, that ‘Christ uses Ps. 110 in reference to Himself’). At the 2003 Synod, and currently, the foundation has been laid for singing so-called ‘dogmatic songs,’ such as Lord’s Day 1, Q. 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, etc. If the 150 Psalms are not sufficient, no amount of songs will be sufficient.2 It is clear that true reformation is needed here, to return consistently to exclusive psalmody, or else the GKSA will end up denying its reestablishment of 1859, and confessing to the NG and NH churches that they were wrong with their church-apartheid of the past 140 years, regarding this matter.
In 1933 the Afrikaner church people received the Bible in their own language translated from the original biblical languages, later to be called the Ou Afrikaanse Vertaling (OAV = Old Afrikaans Translation). This translation was a concordant translation, in the tradition of the Statenvertaling and the King James Version. In 1983 the Afrikaner people received a second translation, surrounded by much controversy even today, called the Nuwe Afrikaanse Vertaling (NAV = New Afrikaans Translation). This translation was the very opposite of the OAV, being a dynamic equivalence translation (some would suggest that it would be more honest to call it a ‘paraphrase’), using the critical NA/UBS text tradition. At the 1985 Synod, the GKSA decided that “The Synod emphasized that the 1983 translation should not replace or phase out the 1933/53 translation in any way. The 1933/53 and the 1983 translations of the Bible can be used alongside each other by the churches.”
Local churches and the theological school mostly pay only lip service to these words, because most churches, in practice, do not work with the OAV anymore. Some of the criticisms leveled against the NAV are that the dynamic equivalence translation method is unacceptable in principle because it is not faithful to the original text, it changes the meaning of the original text; the unity of Scripture is attacked; the Messiah was not recognized in the Old Testament; there is no clear distinction between the names of God; many words are left out or added, and so on. Irrespective of the critique, Synod 1988 confirmed their decision of 1985.
If one studies the book by Prof. Jacob van Bruggen, The Future of the Bible, it is clear that the dynamic equivalence translation method introduces a new view of God, man, and the world. This translation is centered upon man and modern communication, and not on God and His revelation. This leads me to believe that one of the reasons why, in the GKSA churches of today, members on either side of the battle cannot understand each other, even though they would really like to, is that a generation is divided on the different readings of God’s Word, and the old historical reformation-centered terms are not used anymore. A new translation, however, also needed a new songbook.
At the January 2003 Synod of the GKSA, under the cloud of many complaints against many decisions,3 it was nevertheless decided to accept the controversial new psalmbook. In effect this caused another church schism in South Africa. The criticisms against the new psalmbook were many (more or less the same biblical and theological reasons as those against the NAV), but the most devastating and important critique was the self-confession of the main poet of the new psalms, Prof. T.T. Cloete, an NG Church member, who himself stated that “Ps. 110 is … according to my theological advisers, according to the NAV … not a Messianic Psalm” (Algemene Kerkbode, 11-13 April, 2002). Elsewhere he stated that ‘based on new (theological—SLC) research’ he removed messianic references from certain Psalms (The Rapport—News Paper, 4 November, 2001). I bumped into the professor himself one day, doing banking here in Potchefstroom, and he verbally confirmed the above views to me in person.
Synod 2003 was a watershed synod in the history of the Reformed Churches of South Africa. Maybe it was the offshoot or fruit of different theologies—even of many non-Reformed ones—being tolerated and accommodated over the years and decades, that at this synod the decision to allow women in office, specifically in the office of deacons, was also pushed through. Ironically (and I was a witness at this session of the synod), the members of the synodacknowledged that ‘we’ are not clear on what Scripture teaches on the office of women deacons and that more studies should be done. But then the brothers went on and voted by a two-thirds majority to accept women in church office!
In the very first issue of the Kerkblad after the synod (29-01-2003), the previous (outgoing) editor, Prof. G.J.C. Jordaan (professor in NT, at the GKSA theological school) warned against the possible new direction of the GKSA. He correctly mentioned that we must work from Scripture to practice, and not from practice to Scripture. By this he clearly implied that the current crisis in the GKSA could be traced back to different views of Scripture. Historically the GKSA has been a strong adherent and promoter of what is called openbaringshistoriese of heilshistoriese prediking (‘revelational-historical or redemptive-historical preaching), and it seems that a ‘new hermeneutic’ is busy replacing it, or at least is taking a stand alongside it, which could be called ‘socio-historical’ kind of preaching and understanding of Scripture.
Prof. Jordaan also then warned about the possible ecumenical implications of the decisions of Synod 2003. These decisions could lead back to the NG Church in SA, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and even right back to the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (with which the GKSA broke ties in the 1970s because of their liberalism). In a negative sense, this could also mean that the GKSA could then move away from the Reformed Church of New Zealand, Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerke in the Netherlands, and the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (Vrijgemaakt).
At the beginning of this series I mentioned Prof. J.H. vanWyk’s summary of the current situation after he had attended two gatherings of church members of the GKSA, on 26 and 27 October 2003. Just to bring it to mind again, he said that “We have currently arrived at the biggest difference of opinion in the 144-year existence of the Reformed Churches in South Africa. The difference of opinion is irrefutable, but our prayer is that the Lord will keep us from a church schism.”
To confirm his words, let me give you a few quotations from the speakers who were present at the first meeting on that Saturday, who were against the new psalmbook and many other issues of concern:4
The time has come to recognize that there is irrefutable evidence that we are working with two different theologies in one denomination.
Rejection of the authority of the New Testament (especially in relation to the OT, and specifically the Psalms—SLC) already propagandizes another view of God and another “theology.”
The GKSA has, consciously or unconsciously, with the introduction of the new 2001 psalmbook, formally accepted a view of Scripture which radically deviates from the Reformed confessions.
The acceptance of the 2001 psalmbook is the one big official deed of deformation in the history of the GKSA. The synod made a decision for a foreign view of Scripture and an unreformed hermeneutic.
As church song of 1814 led to the re-establishment of the GKSA in 1859, so did the acceptance of the 2001 psalmbook lead to the abolishment of the Reformed churches as the spreaders of the Calvinistic faith (here in South Africa).
The result of Synod 2003 is chaos and disillusionment on local church level. Many churches obey the synod’s decisions and implement them; others totally reject them; and still others do nothing, neither rejecting nor implementing them. It would not be wrong to say that currently, in the GKSA, “everyone (does) what (is) right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).
In the light of the above, it is very clear that the “difference of opinion” is not a difference merely of personal opinions, but differences concerning doctrine, worship, and discipline (see Church Order, Article 1). These are differences related to our view of God, Scripture, and the church. They are differences that touch the heart of Articles 27 to 29, Belgic Confession. Prof. vanWyk, in his mentioned article, correctly states that both truth and unity are important, stating with urgency that: “If a separation of ways must take place, it has to be said with great openness and firmness that: There is the false church (NGB, Article 28)!”
The next synod will be, God willing, in 2006. We can presume that a lot of ‘texts of complaints’ will serve on this synod’s table, because of the reckless decisions of Synod 2003—decisions that were made, according to some, with one eye on the world, and not both eyes on God and His Word alone. Meanwhile, one could say that a lot of ‘member movement’ is taking place, since members are positioning themselves around different preachers and local churches. Not a very healthy situation for a denomination which confesses ‘I believe in one, holy apostolic church’ every Sunday.
Of course God can do anything according to His will, but unfortunately, in sadness, I must be honest and say: I really do not think so. Together with Prof. vanWyk, all true Doppers pray for unity and not schism. But we pray also for repentance and a turn-around, back to God’s Word in both doctrine and practice in our churches. Our unity in Christ is built on the truth of God’s Word and must be maintained on that basis (John 17:17; I Tim. 3:16). Synod 2003, in the face of a very clear warning of faithful brothers, still hardened and chose a way of deformation and will, if God does not give repentance, continue in it. Some concerned brothers suggest that the opening of all offices for women will be the next step, and after that, who knows? The fact that the regional (part) synods rejected any further discussions through a special synod (Article 47) on the current crisis in the GKSA last November (2003) confirms my opinion.
What is the solution? Nothing new. Only a heartfelt repentance and call to the triune God for His mercy and salvation in these times. We must pray that the Lord, by His grace, will send preachers ‘after His heart’ again (Jer. 3:15); preachers who lead the flock back to God’s Word, salvation in Christ alone, worshiping God according to His Word, discipline in love, the education of the elders in the Scriptures, confession, and church order, proclaiming the gospel to the people in SA, missions, and so on. Our comfort is the comfort of the elect church, that “this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though it sometimes for a while appears very small, and in the eyes of men to be reduced to nothing; as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord reserved unto Him seven thousand men who had not bowed their knees to Baal” (Art. 27, Belgic Confession).
We must learn the lesson of the past. As far back as the 1950s, the Rev. L.S. Kruger gave the following warning for us Reformed believers:
church says it accepts the Three Forms of Unity, but its preachers do not accept it fully. It also helps nothing if you call out in the streets that you are Reformed, but in practice the essential doctrines of the confessions, for example the doctrine of predestination and the covenant, are rejected, and the preaching in the church becomes a storybook; the sacraments are served in a self-willed fashion and not according to the covenant; that instead of proclaiming the Covenant, sectarian revival meetings are held as if there were no Covenant and no grace of the Covenant.5
For us who believe in the absolutely sovereign and gracious God of the covenant, there is always hope, because Christ said, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Our hope is in Him, and not in Arminian self-worshiping man. Together we pray the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom come,” as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48, also for the Reformed churches here in SA:
Q. 123: What is the second petition? A. 123: Thy kingdom come; that is, so govern us by Thy Word and Spirit, that we submit ourselves to Thee always more and more; preserve and increase Thy Church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against Thee, and all wicked devices formed against Thy Holy Word, until the fullness of Thy kingdom come, wherein Thou shalt be all in all.
Prof. Dr. H.G. Stoker made the following plea in the middle of the twentieth century:
I believe a time will come wherein God will shake our people awake towards a battle which will bring the antithesis to the fore again … which would uncover the double-faced character of the (current) syncretism and thereby destroy it—a battle which must be started on the ecclesiastical and religious terrain….6
And this is possible only by the faithful preaching and teaching of the gospel of God, through Jesus Christ, acknowledging that there is only one sovereign grace for His people, and no such thing as a ‘common grace’ for all, because it is this theory that helped create a bridge from the world to the church, to bring liberalism and methodism in the churches, becoming more worldly and less holy.7
May He, by His irresistible grace, also gather, and keep on gathering, His church from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9b), through the Reformed Churches of South Africa, remembering its original calling, which are firmly built upon Scripture (Matt. 28:16-20):
…We are here to maintain the law, and, if possible, to propagate and reveal the reformed Christian faith under these wild and uncivilized people, to the glory of your holy Name….8
1.For the purpose of this article, I define ‘scriptural songs’ (Skrifberymings) as those songs of which the text can be found directly in Scripture, for instance the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, songs of praise by Mary and Simeon, etc. ‘Hymns’ are those songs of which the text could not be found directly in Scripture, but are based on the broad truths of Scripture.
2.This could mean that the GKSA could end up with a songbook like the NG and NH Church, that has more than 600 songs to sing from. Only 150 of those 602 are the Psalms, which means that the Psalms will be sung very rarely, and if they are sung, they would be non-Messianic Psalms!
3.See the introduction to this series of articles (April 1, p. 300).
4.Waarheid en Dwaling tydskrif (Truth and Error magazine), Nov.-Dec. 2003.
5.LS Kruger, Waarom is u Lid van die Gereformeerde Kerk? (Pretoria: Craft Drukpers, 1957), p. 17.
6.Oorsprong en Rigting, deel 1 (Kaapstad: Tafelberg Uitgewers, 1967), p. 335.
7.A study needs to be done on how much the common grace theory influenced the theologians, pastors, and churches in South Africa.
8.J.D. Vorster, Die Kerkregtelike ontwikkeling van die Kaapse Kerk onder die Kompanjie (Potchefstroom: Pro Rege, 1956), p. 12.