Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
As our last article we published an editorial by Dr. J. DeJong from the Clarion magazine of the Canadian Reformed Churches, reflecting on what I had written in the Christian Renewal. In this editorial Dr. DeJong focused on the historical aspect of our studies, and especially on what I had said about the centrally important 1949 letter of Prof. B. Holwerda. This is well; but, if we are to gain a correct perspective on this letter, I believe it is necessary to review the history behind it, which I will try to do as briefly as I can.
To begin, it is important to understand that the Protestant Reformed denomination originated out of the Christian Reformed Church as a result of the common grace controversy of 1924, and thus with a specific commitment to the principle that grace is always particular, which position therefore has the weight of constituting our first and formative ecclesiastical decision, which, according to Article 31 of the Church Order of Dort, is therefore “settled and binding” among us, even as is every final decision of a Reformed ecclesiastical church body. This does not mean that everyone belonging to a Reformed denomination is required to believe or agree with each decision, or that they may not discuss or question its wisdom or propriety, for that would constitute the kind of “implicit faith” against which Calvin so often railed. Rather, inasmuch as an ecclesiastical decision is only to concern ecclesiastical matters, and is always to be in conformity with the Word of God (which is what Article 30 implies when it says, “In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only are to be transacted, and that in an ecclesiastical manner”), the members of a denomination by common consent agree to act in conformity with what is decided, and not to militate against it “unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order,” in which case, of course, it is to be changed. It is these two articles, 30 & 31, which constitute the heart of Reformed church polity, inasmuch as it is through them that the unity of the church can be maintained.
Now, beyond this, our relationship with the Liberated Churches had its roots in the visit of Dr. Klaas Schilder to America in 1939. At that time Dr. Schilder met Rev. Hoeksema and was invited to speak in the large auditorium of the First Protestant Reformed Church on the subject of common grace. This he did; and Hoeksema, always a believer in the importance of open and free discussion, later summarized his introduction of this lecture by pointing out that this invitation:
was not at all based on the supposition that he (Schilder — BW) was in agreement with our conception of the matter…. Nor did Dr. Schilder’s acceptance of our invitation put him under any moral obligation to cater to our view. He was perfectly free to express his own views, free even to give the Standard Bearer a thrashing, if he were of a mind to do so. And he [Hoeksema — BW] invited the audience to give the speaker their honest attention and not to listen with the question in their heart and uppermost in their mind whether the speaker’s views were in agreement with their own (Vol. 15, p. 244).
And, in fact, when everything was said and done, Schilder did in his lecture set forth a view of common grace in nature, somewhat akin to that which Abraham Kuyper saw in culture, but distinctly different from the Three Points of the CRC, which alone saw it in salvation as well. That, however, was not the point. Hoeksema, with his desire to promote free and open discussion, was only too pleased to have someone of stature willing to discuss these matters with him; and the result was a friendship between the two of them that continued for over a decade — although, sadly, not quite to the end.
Shortly after Dr. Schilder returned to the Netherlands, the Second World War began, cutting off not just correspondence, but all news from the Netherlands. In fact, in the fall of 1944, when a rumor came through that Dr. Schilder had been deposed by the Gereformeerde Kerken, Hoeksema chided the editor of the Banner for speculating that it must have been over common grace and Schilder’s friendship with men such as Hoeksema: and it was not until nearly a year later, in the late summer of 1945, that the real reason was learned to be Schilder’s view of the covenant, nearly identical with that which Prof. W. Heyns had taught for years at Calvin Seminary, and which lay at the root of what we considered to be the most objectionable part of the CRC view of common grace. Still Hoeksema defended Schilder vigorously, if not for his doctrinal position, because of the unjust way he had been treated by the synod.
For the next year the pages of the Standard Bearer were filled with reports and analyses of every aspect of this conflict, including the similarity between the views of Schilder and Heyns, and of our objections to them. All was said kindly and with concern and clearly in the hope that eventually a serious theological discussion of these matters might be aroused, especially with Dr. Schilder. But little was heard on this level until it was learned indirectly that Prof. Schilder had actually made a speech in Kampen repudiating the theory of common grace. This was gratifying in its way, but also perplexing, as Hoeksema went on to say:
We wonder in how far the Reformed Churches (Art. 31) in general digest and accept the views now propounded by Dr. Schilder as in the above mentioned speech; and also how they will ultimately harmonize this with the Heynsian conception of the covenant so generally adopted by them. To me it seems that the two are diametrically opposed (SB, Jan. 15, 1947).
And so he concluded with a plea for further discussion on these matters, and particularly with an invitation for Dr. Schilder to come and visit us once again for this.
This time, however, his plea did not go unheeded. On the one hand, the Rev. L. Doekes began a series of articles in De Reformatie with the purpose of evaluating our view of the covenant — which articles Hoeksema published in both Dutch and English in the Standard Bearer with the intent of responding to them once the series was ended; but that never happened due to the intervention of a massive stroke with which Hoeksema was struck that summer. Before that happened, however, Schilder also replied with an acceptance of his invitation to come again to America, at which point Hoeksema remarked:
Dr. Schilder … knows that we do not agree with their covenant conception, and that we take the same stand as they, church politically. He is assured too that, in spite of our differences, our churches will give him a hearing. He trusts that we still love him, and that we will give him a warm reception. In this, I think he will not be disappointed (SB, Vol. 23, p. 243).
This visit, of course, did take place, but only after Hoeksema’s stroke prevented him from taking an active part in it, that is, until the very end. It was this visit, however, that undoubtedly constituted the pivot point in the whole of our relationship with the Liberated Churches.
To begin with, one can hardly overestimate the significance of Hoeksema’s stroke, less than two months prior to Dr. Schilder’s arrival. For twenty years Hoeksema had been the dominating figure within our small denomination, and its leading theologian. He had waged the battle for particular grace which had given birth to it, had edited the Standard Bearer which spoke for it, had taught all of the young pastors who ministered within it, organized nearly every congregation which belonged to it, and in general had given wise and discerning direction at every point along its way. He was its father figure, loved and respected by all. And so it was to
be expected that, on Schilder’s arrival, he would have met him and traveled with him all through the denomination, giving him a full and free opportunity to speak as he would, but also then providing an analysis of our problems with what he said. It was something to which everyone had been looking forward with eager anticipation. But now, as by the hand of God, Hoeksema’s trumpet-like voice was silenced, perhaps never to be heard again; and Schilder traveled among us alone.
Still, the event itself was far too significant not to engender excitement. Schilder went from one end of our denomination to the other, preaching, lecturing, and teaching with all his amazing thetic powers, that is, his amazing ability to take any subject, almost without notice, and expound upon it with poetic flourishes and insights which held every audience in rapt attention literally to the last word. But perhaps even more important were the private visits which took place in nearly every pastor’s manse. These were men with little higher education beyond that which Hoeksema and Ophoff had provided them; and they were being privileged to host and hold private theological discussions with one of the most learned and profound thinkers in all of modern Europe. And, even as they did so, Schilder had that ability to engender within all of them the feeling that their thoughts and their opinions were as valuable and valid as those of anyone else, after which he would respond with another of those soaring rhetorical flourishes which left everyone breathless and without further answer. This was for many of them the experience of a lifetime; and it had its effect. Carefully, almost gingerly, each would lay out the problems he thought Hoeksema would have presented, particularly regarding that crucial matter of the covenant; but Schilder was equal to each of them, as thetically he brought both views together as though they were actually one. Never did there seem to be a problem left. This was Schilder’s hour; and it was almost as though the absence of Hoeksema added to its power. Schilder passed through our little denomination like a conquering hero, with none to detract from his endless rounds of impressive accomplishments.
And then the unexpected happened. Suddenly Hoeksema was back. Within five short months he was out of his bed and able to take part in the final, climactic, three-day conference on that most crucial subject of the covenant. Clearly Hoeksema’s illness still restricted him as he struggled, both to remain polite, and yet to present the difficulties he saw in Schilder’s covenant view, and which he had waited so long to have discussed, while Ophoff did what he could to drive each point home. But the day belonged to Schilder, and he was equal to it all. With his gift for molding an audience, he easily parried each problem, or succeeded in laying it aside, until it was left for him to wrap everything up by laying out three succinct conclusions:
1.The covenant is always to be identified directly with the promise of God and the demands or conditions which must accompany it.
2.The Liberated view of the covenant was to be distinguished from that of Prof. Heyns because they did not include in their view a preparatory grace for everyone.
3.There were no essential differences between our view of the covenant and that of the Liberated, other than in terminology and emphasis due to the different histories through which we had passed.
And then, to the surprise of nearly everyone, he laid out two personal goals, and in such a way as though they had been agreed upon by all: first, that we should work to bring our two denominations into closer union as sister-churches so that our preachers might pass freely back and forth between them both; and secondly, to encourage those emigrating from the Netherlands to join our churches when they arrived on our shores. For our men, few things could have seemed more gratifying. Here was the most pre-eminent of Dutch theologians, having come to know each of them personally, expressing his complete confidence in them, and expressing his intention to direct his own people to come under their preaching and care. At last, by his good graces, it seemed that our long longed-for growth might yet come to be.
Still, underneath there were some, along with Hoeksema, and especially Ophoff, who felt a lingering sense of uneasiness. In spite of Schilder’s striking rhetoric, when it came down to it the real problems had not actually been grappled with, and had certainly not been resolved, as Ophoff was later to reflect in speaking of the Liberated view of the covenant, “It is the very doctrine he expounded on our meetings with him. But he did so in a kind of veiled speech so that we didn’t know what he was driving at” (Acts of Synod 1949, p. 50). Nor could they feel anything but uncomfortable with his claim that our differences were simply in terminology and emphasis, for that was the very thing we had been hearing for years out of the CRC concerning common grace, and it was hardly reassuring to hear it now from the lips of Schilder regarding our covenant view as well.
Nevertheless, those were pleasant days which Schilder spent in our midst, and a genuine sense of sorrow was felt when the time came for Dr. Schilder to depart our shores once more.