The Synodical Decisions of 1924 on Common Grace

The November, 1958 issue of Torch and Trumpetcontains an article with the above title written by Dr. Fred H. Klooster, associate professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Obviously it is quite impossible to quote his entire article in our allotted space, since it is contained in about four and a half pages of that paper. We can therefore only reflect on some of the high points of his article and offer a few comments. 

After an introduction on the character of the Synod of 1924 in which he points up that it was not a common Synod, Dr. Klooster divides his article into three main sections: the first, dealing with. “General Features of the Decisions of 1924”; the second, dealing with “The Three Points in Particular”; and the third, dealing with “The Reformed Character of the Decisions of 1924.” 

The professor states in his introduction that he is “‘personally convinced that a great deal of misunderstanding does exist concerning the 1924 decisions on common grace.” It appears that as he wrote he had in mind a communication from the De Wolf group sent to the Synod of 1957 in which they admit that “the possibility exists that we have misinterpreted your position. If this is pointed out to us we assure you that we will correct it.” As we read Dr. Klooster’s article we felt that he had in mind throughout to untangle the ecumenical barriers that exist between the Christian Reformed Church and the De Wolf group.

Dr. Klooster contends that the great deal of misunderstanding concerning the decisions of 1924 is due partly to the fact that all the decisions of that Synod are recorded in the Holland language, and perhaps mostly to the fact that the decisions re common grace are all too abbreviated. With a view to the latter he refers more than once to the report of the committee of pre-advice which he claims greatly moved the Synod to make the decisions it adopted as stipulated in the three points of common grace. The committee had at least eleven points of dispute arising out of some thirty protests and appeals which it had to consider. But the committee advised Synod to treat only three of them because these “were the points on which the Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema had taken a clear stand” and “because they concerned matters which were expressed in our Creeds.” The professor points up that “the Advisory Committee and the Synod realized that the three points did not constitute the whole doctrine of common grace. The three points were not even meant to constitute a well-rounded summary of the doctrine of common grace. They were simply a reassertion of three elements believed to be contained in our creeds and now called into dispute by Danhof and Hoeksema.” Synod, according to Klooster, following the advice of the committee rejected the proposal that a committee be appointed “to study the matter of common grace in order to come to the formulation of a dogma which could be made a part of the Confession.” But it did recommend that “the leaders of our people, ministers as well as professors, . . . engage in further study of the doctrine of common grace and to discuss the problems involved in it carefully and present them to our people in lectures and articles.” Klooster observes further that “it was hoped that in this way the doctrine would be thoroughly investigated in all its aspects and that eventually the time would be ripe for the ‘formulation of a dogma’ of common grace. It is unfortunate that so little of this was actually done during the next quarter century. But these assertions of the Committee help us to understand how the three points were regarded. This, it seems to me, has significance in judging the creedal status of the three points, which seems to be a touchy problem in the current ecumenical discussions.” 

Dr. Klooster concludes the section of his article dealing with the “General Features of the Decisions of 1924” by calling attention to the concluding witness or testimony of the Synod. “This testimony to the Churches constitutes a warning against worldliness and a possible misuse of the doctrine of common grace. While common grace and the antithesis are sometimes put in juxtaposition, the Synod called for the sturdy maintenance of both.” 

In the second part of his article, Dr. Klooster dealing with “The Three Points in Particular,” gives the gist of each in turn. Writes he, “The first of the three points concerns the ‘favorable attitude of God to mankind in general and not only to the elect.’ The Synod asserted that ‘in addition to the saving grace of God unto eternal life shown only unto the elect, there is also a certain favor or grace (gunst of genade) which he displays unto his creatures in general.’ 

“Need for asserting this point arose from the fact that Hoeksema and Danhof had clearly taken position against it. The Committee quoted from Zorzde en Genade: ‘Grace is not in things, but only in the good favor of God. Gold and silver, rain and sunshine, gifts and talents are not in themselves grace. But grace can certainly work in all those things, but it always remains particular and is given only to His people’ (p. 125). Of the other quotations one of the clearest is a statement of Hoeksema in The Banner. After declaring that ‘such an attitude of God is utterly inconceivable,’ Hoeksema concludes: ‘Hence we deny that in any way or to any extent, for time or eternity, God assumes an attitude of positive favor or grace over against the reprobate’ (pp. 125, 126).” 

It is at this point that Dr. Klooster refers to “an unfortunate technical weakness in the Synodical decision.” That weakness, he says, is that Synod failed to make the Scriptural references a part of the official decisions. For the references we have to go to the Advisory Committee’s Report. 

“The passages mentioned are Psalm 145:9Matthew 5:44, 45;Luke 6:35, 36Acts 14:16, 17I Timothy 4:10Romans 3:4; as well as the passages concerning the well-meant gospel offer,Ezekiel 33:11 and Ezekiel 18:23. Unfortunately, the Advisory Committee Report does no more than list the passages in proof-text method. However, the problem involves divergent exegesis of each passage. It is not possible to evaluate each passage here. It must be admitted that they are not all equally valid. It seems to me that one of the strongest passages in defense of the Synodical decision is Luke 6:35, 36: ‘But love your enemies, and do them good and lend, never despairing, and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” If this passage is parallel to Matthew 5:44, 45, as I believe it is, then this attitude of kindness and mercy is applied to the gifts of rain and sunshine given to all men as well. 

“The Synodical decision seeks support for the well-meant offer of the gospel by an appeal to the Canons of Dordt. The Canons (III, IV, 8, 9) are indeed quite explicit in asserting the doctrine of the well-meant gospel call, for they say: ‘As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called.’ But I do not think the Canons say much concerning the precise point at issue; namely, whether this well-meant offer of the gospel is evidence of an attitude of favor on God’s part to mankind in general. Perhaps the statement that ‘God calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts‘ (IIIIV, 9) comes closest to the point at issue. The Synod claims further support for the first point by an appeal to the classic Reformed theologians who have maintained this doctrine. 

“The second and the third points were thought to be involved in the first, The Advisory Committee stated that it considered the first point to be ‘of central significance in the question which has caused so much unrest in the Church. The other two points are very closely related to this one and indeed are more or less contained in it’ (p. 124).” 

On what Dr. Klooster writes thus far we have several questions to ask and comments to make. 

We are assuming that he restates the historical facts quite accurately because we see no reason to deny them. And this means that we accept that: 1. It was Synod’s intention that the three points did not constitute a well-formulated dogma. 2. Synod wanted the Church to give considerably more study and discussion to the subject before it was ready to formulate such a dogma. 3. Synod asked the ministers and professors to engage in this study and present the problems to the people in lectures and articles. 4. It was simply Synod’s intention in the setting forth of the three points only to bring peace to the Church which had been cast into unrest by the denial of common grace by Danhof and Hoeksema. 

But, this being the case, is it not strange that the Church nevertheless definitely sealed the mouths of those who wanted to show to all the people that Scripture and the Confessions deny the doctrine of common grace? And, is it not strange that, whereas Synod admitted that it had no well-formulated dogma on common grace, it nevertheless denied the office of the ministry in that Church to men who refused to subscribe to the three points? And, isn’t it strange that more than thirty years after Danhof and Hoeksema were banished from the Church that Torch and Trumpet would ask the Rev. Hoeksema to air his views on the subject of common grace in that magazine, and after he sends in his article they return it to him unpublished evidently on the ground that it might stir up more unrest in the Church? And, isn’t it especially strange that now after more than thirty years the Christian Reformed Church is willing to discuss the subject with those who admit that they may have misinterpreted the decisions of Synod in the three points, but the Church will not discuss the subject with those who do not misunderstand but are well able to show up their fallacy on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions? These questions cry for an answer. Maybe Torch and Trumpet would be so kind as to ask Dr. Klooster in another article to answer them. 

Finally, we wish to say a word or two about Dr. Klooster’s discussion on the first point. Though he may be a bit critical of the technical weaknesses of Synod, he is very plainly in agreement with the general tenor of the three points and especially is this made plain from what he writes in the last part of his article, to which we will call attention, the Lord willing, the next time. 

Dr. Klooster believes that of all the passages of Scripture quoted, Luke 6:35, 36 is the strongest in defense of Point I. But the reader will notice that like the Synod, Klooster gives no exegesis of the passage. He simply gives his conclusion. Now, does not Dr. Klooster know that no one, including the Rev. Hoeksema, denies that God is kind to the unthankful and evil? But does that mean that the text teaches that God is kind toreprobate unthankful and evil? The entire context shows clearly the very opposite. Yet this is exactly what Synod and Dr. Klooster must prove with all their texts. 

As to what Dr. Klooster writes about Synod’s appeal to the Canons in support of the well-meant offer is much better. Here he admits that Synod picked the wrong articles for proof, simply because they do not prove Synod’s point. But even here, Dr. Klooster is weak. He should have come right out with it and told his churches that they should no longer hold to a general offer of grace to all, reprobate included, in the preaching of the gospel on the grounds of what is expressed in the Canons. 

We will have more to say about this the next time, if the Lord wills. 

—M.S.