Slabbert Le Cornu is married to Dorothea, and they have three daughters: Joanette (6), Hannelie (3), and Doret (1). He is a 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
“We have currently arrived at the biggest difference of opinion in the 144-year existence of the Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA = Gereformeerde Kerke van Suid-Afrika). The difference of opinion is irrefutable, but our prayer is that the Lord will keep us from a church schism.”
This is quoted from professor-emeritus JH van Wyk, currently editor of Die Kerkblad (The Church Magazine), the official church magazine of the GKSA, in the December 2003 edition of this magazine. This verdict was reached as a result of certain decisions that were made at the GKSA Synod in January 2003. These decisions could lead to a church schism in the GKSA, unless the Lord sees fit to spare us from this. Some of the controversial recommendations and decisions that have been made are the following:
not recognizing the Sabbath as a creation ordinance anymore, but rather just as something which we follow because of the examples of the early church and the Apostles;
freedom to use individual glasses (‘kelkies’) on certain grounds, together with the cup at the Lord’s Supper;
changing the words of the Apostles Creed from “descended into hell,” to “who, to death, has undergone the anxiety of hell”;
opening the office of deacon to women; and
accepting a new non-messianic rhymed psalmbook (2001), to be used alongside the older messianic rhymed psalmbook (1936).
It was especially the last two decisions that sent stirrings through local congregations. Many local churches were not prepared to accept and implement the above decisions, while others have taken a ‘neutral’ stance, not accepting or rejecting the decisions, but rather waiting for further developments. Some churches have sent ‘open letters’ to all churches, in which they openly reject the last two decisions as being against Scripture, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Church Order. One church has declared openly its official grieving (doleer), stating that they are now to be known as “The Reformed Church of Waterberg (Dolerend).” The signs of church schism were seen most clearly when in October 2003 two very different kinds of meetings were held in Pretoria. One gathering of Doppers praised and thanked the Lord for the new Psalmbook (which contained the new rhymed 2001 editions of the psalms), while the other gathering of Doppers questioned and rejected the new 2001-rhymed psalms, lamenting before the Lord the deformation in the GKSA, which—it was argued—is the consequence of a change in our view of God, Scripture, and the Church. In November 2003, the regional-synods of the GKSA answered negatively to the cry of concerned members and churches to call out a ‘special synod’ to discuss the doctrinal issues and differences of opinions that are threatening the unity of the churches and could end in a schism in the GKSA.
To understand the current crisis of the GKSA more clearly, we need to go back in history, all the way to 1652.
The Reformed faith in South Africa originated with the arrival of the Dutch settlers on 6 April in the year 1652 of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jan van Riebeeck, as the representative of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), set foot in the shadow of Table Mountain, to establish a half-way station for the Dutch ships traveling to and fro between Europe and Asia. The DEIC had been founded by dedicated Calvinists, the product of the United Provinces’ war against Catholic Spain, fighting for freedom of worship. Seeking freedom of worship, if necessary by ‘aggressive commercial expansion,’ by force if need be, the Dutch were ‘bent on the destruction of Spanish power.’1 The Catholic Portuguese had already discovered the Cape at the end of the fifteenth century, though by God’s sovereign and gracious providence they and their Roman Catholic religion did not settle there. It was to be the Dutch who would start a settlement at the Cape, bringing with them the religion of the Dutch reformation: the Statenvertaling, the Psalmbook, and the Three Forms of Unity as established by the Synod of Dordt 1618/19. Just before landing at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck prayed an official prayer for the success of his mission, including the following important words: “…We are here to maintain the law, and, if possible, to propagate and reveal the reformed Christian faith amongst these wild and uncivilized people, to the glory of your holy Name….”2
The Dutch Calvinists were strengthened by the arrival of the German settlers in the 1660s and the French Huguenots in 1688.3 For the first thirteen years there were no ordained ministers, but only able laymen, called sick-comforters, who served the Reformed church at the Cape. The first permanent minister was Johan vanArckel in 1665. At the end of the seventeenth century people were beginning to settle further inland, as the so-called free burgers, which would later prove to be to the advantage of the Reformed faith. From these people grew an independent people, who were later known as Boers (boere = farmers) and later as Afrikaners. These were God-fearing, hardworking people, who placed high priority on private family devotional gatherings around the Statenvertaling, the Psalmbook, and the confessions. It was not always easy to go to church because of distance and difficulty of traveling. Congregations were started at Stellenbosch (1687), Drakenstein (1691), Roodezand (1743), Zwartland (1744), etc. For the next two centuries Reformed believers formed one church, united by the Scriptures and by the Reformed confessions and liturgy as determined by the Church Order of Dordt 1618/19.
Two factors must, however, be mentioned which had a negative influence on the development of the Reformed church at the Cape.4 First, the Reformed churches of the Cape fell under Classis Amsterdam according to Article 29 of the Church Order, and for 150 years this classis ordered the church life of South Africa from as far as the Netherlands. This had a negative effect on the independent development of the churches and would have grave consequences at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Second, at the Cape the state also ruled over the church, so that the Dordt Church Order could not be put into full practice. The church at the Cape was not a free church but a state church, in fact a ‘department of the state,’ which would also have its disastrous consequences at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is important, at this point, to mention also the following fact, which would later help explain the church schism of 1859: “So for the majority of the Dutch colonial period in South Africa, Datheen’s psalms were sung…. No great change in church music occurred in South Africa until 1814, with the addition of hymns.”5
At the end of the eighteenth century, however, there was a growing deformation in the churches which paralleled the deformation in the sister Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The influence of Cartesian philosophy on modern science, the humanistic spirit of the French Revolution, the growing rationalistic liberalism, and the pietistic-mystical reaction of the churches with their ‘cure,’ the introduction of the so-called ‘Evangelical hymns,’ also arrived at the Cape to give the Reformed church of the Cape its death blow, at least for a while. In this period, more or less the end of the eighteenth century and the first half ofthe nineteenth century, Reformed believers became more and more worried about the spiritual condition of the churches, especially about the doctrine of many preachers. Although they were devout Bible readers, they also read the ‘oude schrijvers’ of the Dutch Second Reformation, including writers like à Brakel, Smytegelt, and d’Outrein, who taught them of the fall of man, his inability to do good, and “the predestinating grace of God and the absolute sovereignty of God.”6
The Cape church was growing more worldly, and the Boer Calvinists in the churches of the interior, were growing—by God’s grace—more holy. This would lead to an antithetical clash. The big revolution would come in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the one Reformed church of South Africa would split into three separate denominations: the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (1843), the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk (1853), and the Gereformeerde Kerken (1859).
The Reformed Church of the Netherlands was a state church, which meant that the Dordt Church Order could not be implemented effectively. When the French Revolution occurred, the Netherlands, in both state and church, became more liberal and rationalistic. The authority of the Bible and the confessions was rejected, and in 1816 King William of Orange ordered a church regulation for use in the Netherlands State Church. The Dordt Church Order was discarded, and the name of the church was changed to ‘Hervormd.’ Because of the unbiblical form of church government, liberalism in doctrine and teaching was introduced in the churches. A strong reaction came from a movement called the Revéil (Awakening), with leaders such as Bilderdyk, Da Costa, and Groen van Prinsterer, which laid the foundation for church reformation in the churches in the Netherlands in the first half of the nineteenth century. The great reformation, called the Afscheiding (the Separation), came under the leadership of Rev. H. de Cock of Ulrum, who preached boldly and furiously against the liberalism in the church and also against the liberal evangelical hymns that had been introduced in the churches in 1807. When the Hervormde Kerk wanted to remove him, he and others started the “Afgeskeie Christelike Gereformeerde Kerk” (Separated Christian Reformed Church). These were the churches that decided at their Synod of 1857 to send the Rev. D. Postma to South Africa, to investigate the church situation. More about him later, however. Let us return to South Africa.
In 1795, after about 150 years of Dutch government, the Cape fell into the hands of the English. According to the Peace of Amiens (between France and England), however, it was decided that the Cape would be returned to the Dutch, under the government of Jansens and De Mist. These men were the French Revolution incarnate. In 1804 De Mist introduced a new church order, which testified to his liberalism. Some of its contents were as follows: all churches were equal; the church should help to foster good citizens; the name of the church was changed to the ‘Hervormde Kerkgenootskap’ (‘The Reformed Church Society,’ which meant that the church was an open organization depending on the free will of man to be part of it or not = humanistic Arminianism); the document did not use the Lord’s Name, but mentioned a ‘Higher Being’; state education was introduced, and the roles of parents and church were undermined; the synod was the highest form of government, and the church fell under the government of the state.
With this, “the Reformed principle (as accepted in the Three Forms of Unity by the Synod of Dordt, 1618/19) was abandoned, and therefore we could speak of 1804 as the year of the death of the Reformed Church in South Africa.”7
The church in the Cape was no longer a Reformed church but rather a deformed church, and not much protest was heard. Because the Reformed church had never been allowed to become an independent church in South Africa because of state influence, and because Classis Amsterdam had never allowed it, it could not handle the onslaught by De Mist. In 1806 the Cape once again came under the government of the British Empire, and they did not only bring with them the winds of revolution, but also a foreign culture. Contact between the church of the Cape and that of the Netherlands was reduced. There was a great need for pastors, and governor Somerset used this sad situation to further his political goals: he wanted to anglicize the church at the Cape by bringing in English pastors and missionaries to serve the Dutch-speaking people. The schools were also anglicized. The problem with the new English and Scottish pastors was not only the language and cultural barrier, but most importantly the new spirit that they brought with them, that of Methodism, which was foreign to the Reformed believers who had been fed by annotated notes of the Statenvertaling and the Reformed confessions.8 These believers rejected the new doctrine and preaching, which said “man has his own will to salvation,” and they sorely missed “the pure doctrine of predestination or election.”9
The first official synod in South Africa was held in 1824, when under the De Mist Church Order, the Reglement of the Nederlandse Kerkgenootskap of William I of 1816 was accepted. This was the final blow to the Dordt Church Order. Collegialism was now the official form of church government in South Africa. This Synod also failed to test the ‘evangelical hymns,’ the new hymnbook that had already been introduced in the churches in the Cape in 1814.10
These hymns promoted the spirit of Rationalism and Enlightenment, which proclaimed a common grace to all people; it was “blunt Pelagian humanism: man must only do his duty and then the ‘light’ will go on for him; it furthers Romish doctrine; and this hymnbook worked together with Liberalism for the downfall of our Church.”11
Therefore, “if the Church Order of De Mist was the death of the Reformed Church in South Africa, then the Synod of 1824 was the solemn funeral of it.”12
From the day that the hymnbook, the product of deformation, was introduced, a great battle was fought in churches in the Cape, and later also in the Free State and Transvaal (independent countries of the Afrikaner people in the second half of the nineteenth century), after the ‘Groot Trek’ (‘Great Migration’) had taken place, because many citizens of the Cape had decided to trek to the hinterland to start a new country under their own government, free from British rule.
In 1843 another synod was held, which abolished the church order of De Mist, and made certain changes to the Church Law of 1824. The name was changed from ‘Hervormde Kerkgenootskap,’ to ‘Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerkgenootskap’ (NGK), and so the NGK was officially formed. Unfortunately there was no return to the Dordt Church Order, and their preachers were still trained at the liberal seminaries of the Hervormde Kerk in the Netherlands. The liberal pastors of the Cape did not believe in the Trinity, the infallibility of Scripture, miracles, the Godhead of Christ, etc., and one of them even said that he did not believe question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism.13 The reaction against this rationalism came in the form of Methodism, with its emphasis on man and his feelings: revival services, hymns, praying that the Holy Spirit must be poured out again, and so on. But this was still not the Reformed answer to man’s sin and tyranny. Reformed believers were still hoping and praying for true biblical reformation of the church in South Africa.
As mentioned above, between 1836 and 1838 the Great Trek took place, when thousands of burghers decided to leave the Cape with their families and belongings and trek farther north into the unknown, to begin a new life as a free people under God, rejecting the tyrannical government of the British empire. The Cape Synod of 1837 accused them of rebellion, and therefore no official pastor was sent to minister unto them. As a direct result of the Great Trek, two independent republics were founded under Afrikaner rule: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. When the pastors of the NG Kerk began serving the people of these republics, the people were afraid that the Cape church would try to bring them under British rule once again. Therefore, Rev. Dirk van der Hoff, a proponent of the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, was called as pastor, and the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk was formed in 1853 as the state church of Transvaal, South Africa. Although understandable in their situation, this was unfortunately more of a politically motivated decision than a church reformation in the biblical sense of the word. The NGK and the NHK were basically one in doctrine, liturgy, and church order. They disagreed politically rather than doctrinally (which is more or less the same situation today). The Reformed people were still waiting for true biblical reformation in the churches of South Africa.
The name ‘Dopper’ is the unofficial nickname of members of the Gereformeerde Kerken van Suid-Afrika(GKSA), even today. This name was given to a group of believers who had existed long before the Reformed church was reestablished in 1859. The origin of this name is uncertain, but the following two suggestions seem most probable:
‘dorpeling’ (‘townspeople’—’dorp’ is the Afrikaans name for ‘town’);14
‘domper’ (an instrument that was used to extinguish a candle). The Doppers were accused of extinguishing the ‘new light’ of the new times at the Cape. The Doppers themselves see this, in fact, as their calling!15
These were common farm and townsfolk who daily worshiped, lived, and worked under the instruction of the Statenvertaling and the Reformed confessions on a daily basis, as established by the Synod of Dordt 1618-19. They lived mostly on the outskirts of the Cape Colony, near the Orange River, on the frontiers. They vehemently rejected the ‘new light’ of theological liberalism and emotional methodism. These were not revolutionary people, because for many years, even decades, during the first half of the nineteenth century, they had prayed and worked for reformation in the churches. They were patient, but in the end they had to be obedient to God rather than to man, and were left with no other option than to reestablish in 1859 the Reformed church of 1652. Their whole battle against humanism and liberalism culminated in a battle to decide what should be sung in the churches to the glory of God? The battle for true doctrine and true church government was most clearly revealed in the battle between the Psalms and the evangelical hymns. As mentioned previously, in 1814 the hymns were first introduced in the churches of South Africa without any testing or church decision. In 1833 in Cradock voices of protest were heard against the hymns, and the Ring of Graaff Reinet drew first blood when in a so-called ‘Pastor’s Letter’ they accused the pro-Psalms believers of ‘heresy,’ that they ‘pierce the body of Christ,’ and that they were guilty of ‘church schism,’ because they did not want to sing the hymns. The Ring said that the hymns were acceptable, because the pastors had said so!16 The years and decades following were years of great struggle concerning the confessions and church government.
The Doppers wanted a church run according to the principles of the Synod of Dordt 1618/19. In 1858 SJ Kruger, P Venter, and JJ Venter, as leaders of the concerned members in the NHK, tried to convince the NHK to call a minister who did not sing the hymns for them from the Netherlands. The NHK of Rustenburg gave permission for this. Meanwhile, without knowing of each other, the Christelike Gereformeerde Kerken van die Nederland had decided to send Rev. Dirk Postma to investigate the situation in South Africa and to offer help to the Transvaal government via pastors and teachers. When the Transvaal government heard about this, they told the concerned members of Rustenburg that if Postma fulfilled their demands, they could call him as their pastor.
Dirk Postma was born in 1818 in Dokkum, Netherlands. In 1840 he became the pastor of the Christelike Gereformeerde Kerk of Minnertsga and a leading figure in the church. When he arrived in the Transvaal, he and Rev. van der Hoff of the NHK at first had good relationships. At the General Church Meeting of 10 January 1859, Postma’s doctrine was examined and the Meeting was satisfied. This Meeting also decided that the evangelical hymns must and should be maintained in the NGK. Just as in the case of the Ring of Graaf Reinet (1841) and the Cape Synod (1847), this was ‘a binding of consciences’ (‘gewetensbinding’), because they wanted to force the concerned members to sing the hymns. The concerned members had to choose between bowing before men and bowing before God. Therefore fifteen men, including men like PJW Schutte, Ph. Snyman, SJ Kruger and Paul Kruger (who would later become the famous State President of the South African Republic) according to the above decision, were forced to leave the NH Church, to form the ‘Free Reformed Church, according to the doctrine, service, and discipline of the Dordt fathers.’
From this act, the Reformed church would be reestablished on 11 February 1859, on the basis of the confessions and Church Order of Dordt 1618/19, with Rev. Dirk Postma as their first pastor. This was the fruit of decades of struggle against false doctrine, service, and discipline, which were incorporated into the churches by the humanistic spirit of the enlightenment age, and the mystic methodism that was the reaction to it. For Postma, after the reestablishment, the Reformed people “could serve God once again according to his Word. God’s Word as the final source of authority, knowledge and the standard for the church in all its service, doctrine, church government, liturgy, and life, must not be ‘lost’; on the contrary, ‘according to article 7 of our Confession (Belgic Confession—SLC), the Word of God above all else’ must be the ruling principle of the Church of the Lord and not our ‘own opinion.’ The Church of Christ must submit in doctrine and life to the discipline of this Word.”17 One of the first members, HJJ Kruger, stated as follows:
After a long struggle, of which the tracks could be followed back to the 1830’s; after years of resistance against false doctrine which had been tolerated in the churches; after years of sighing ‘because the church wants to force the people’s consciences to accept human ordinances and teachings contrary to the Word,’ relief has finally come.18
The rejection of the Word of God, the confessions, and the Church Order of Dordt, the deformation in doctrine, liturgy, and discipline, especially concerning the hymns, could not but lead to a church schism, which was actually a church reformation, by the sovereign and gracious providence of God.
This is how it came to be, that from the Reformed church of the Cape, three different denominations for the Afrikaans-speaking people emerged, of which the GKSA is—or at least was—the continuation of the original Reformed church of the Cape, established in 1662. Even today, these three different denominations exist alongside each other, with a number of smaller schisms that have taken place since their formation.
The GKSA grew rapidly over the next 100 years or so, being blessed by God in many ways, even during the worst of times in the history of South Africa.19 In 1869 the Theological School of the Reformed Churches was begun, and from this theological school grew the “Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education” (PU for CHE), more or less on the model of the Free University of Amsterdam, which had been established by Abraham Kuyper. One of the most influential men in the history, not only of the GKSA, but of the Afrikaner people and the Reformed churches in South Africa, was Prof. Dr. JD Du Toit (1877-1953), better known by his nickname ‘Totius.’ Totius, who was very much influenced and formed by Kuyper, was the first Afrikaner to receive his doctorate at the Free University, on the topic of Het Methodisme. He was to become the embodiment of the Dopper Reformed faith and culture in SA in the twentieth century, together with the Calvinist president, Paul Kruger (1825-1904), who was the best political leader the Afrikaners ever had. Totius would also become the leading theologian and poet, who would help translate the Bible into the Afrikaner language (1933), together with the rhymed Psalmbook in Afrikaans (1936). Another Dopper Reformed leader who had a great influence on the GKSA, especially in the area of education and philosophy, was Prof. Dr. HG Stoker. In order to understand the Reformed worldview of the Afrikaner of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one needs to understand these three men of God: theologian, statesman, and philosopher to the glory of God, in Africa. These men, Totius and Stoker, together with other Calvinistic leaders in South Africa like JD Kestell, FJM Potgieter, EE van Rooyen, BB Keet, LJ Du Plessis, JD Vorster, and so forth, were also part of the bigger Calvinistic movement over the world in the mid-twentieth century. Three volumes were published under the title Koers in die Krisis (Direction in the Crisis), containing articles by Calvinists from all over the world, dealing with all kinds of theological, historical, church, and cultural topics from a Reformed perspective.20 Calvinism thus had a great influence and impact on South African society from about the 1930s to the 1970s.
(to be continued…)
1.C.R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800 (London: Penguin, 1990 ), p. xxii.
2.J.D. Vorster, Die Kerkregtelike ontwikkeling van die Kaapse Kerk onder die Kompanjie (Potchefstroom: Pro Rege, 1956), p. 12.
3.J.W. Hofmeyr & Gerald J. Pillay (ed.), A History of Christianity in South Africa, volume 1 (Pretoria: HAUM, 1994), p. 11.
4.V.E. d’Assonville, Kerkgeskiedenis in 30 lesse (Potchefstroom: Marnix, 1990), p. 74.
5.J.N. Gerstner, The Thousand Generation Covenant (Leiden: EJ Brill, 1991), p. 43.
6.J.W. Hofmeyr & Gerald J. Pillay (ed.), ibid., p. 12. For a very good overview of the theological development in the Cape, see the important article by A.W.G. Raath, Volk en Verbond, in Van Niekerk, E.J. & Hayes, H.J. Reformerend die Millenium in: Ons Calvinistiese Erfenis en Roeping (Bloemfontein: VCHO, 2002), pp. 17-83.
7.W.J. de Klerk & J.H. van Wyk, Woord en Antwoord (Potchefstroom: Pro Rege, 1977), p. 144.
8.For the development of the liberal influences in the Cape, see T.N. Hanekom, Die Liberale Rigting in Suid-Afrika: ‘n Kerkhistoriese Studie (Stellenbosch: CSV Boekhandel, 1951).
9.G.C.P. van der Vyver, Professor Dirk Postma 1818—1890 (Potchefstroom: Pro Rege, 1958), pp. 291, 292.
10.”On Sunday 9 January 1814 the first hymn was sung on the South African soil—Rhijnvis Feith’s ‘Zingt. Zingt blij te moe.’ On Sunday 28 October 2001 a wonderful group of new hymns (altogether 602 of them!—SLC) will be heard in South Africa.”—Editors of the new songbook: ‘Die Liedboek van die Kerk’ (The Songbook of the Church) of the Dutch Reformed and Hervormde Church, March 2001.
11.G.C.P. van der Vyver, ibid., p. 16.
12.L.S. Kruger, Waarom is u Lid van die Gereformeerde Kerk? (Pretoria: Craft Drukpers, 1957), p. 40.
13.Q60: How are you righteous before God? A60: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
14.B. Spoelstra, Die ‘Doppers’ in Suid-Afrika, 1760-1899 (Kaapstad: Nasionale Boekhandel Bpk., 1963), p. 16.
15.V.E. d’Assonville, ibid., p. 88.
16.V.E. d’Assonville, ibid., p. 89.
17.G.C.P. van der Vyver, ibid., p. 307.
18.G.C.P. van der Vyver, ibid., p. 294.
19.The GKSA grew from one congregation with about 300 members in 1859, to 295 congregations with about 97,000 members in 2004.
20.Koers in die Krisis, vol. 1-3 (Stellenbosch: Pro-Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1935-1941).