Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

It was in the months following Schilder’s visit that the first indications of difficulty began to come to the surface.

The difficulty was first with Schilder himself. If he had really believed our differences to be only a matter of terminology, was it not to be expected that on his return to the Netherlands he would have begun to explain the essential similarities between our positions, and thus work toward developing a common terminology which would bring us together? Instead, however, his writings went on as though his trip, with all of its intense personal interaction, had made no difference at all, and they sounded as much like Heyns as they ever had. It was almost as though, after Schilder pronounced his verdict, everyone was simply to accept things as they were and everything would work out all right.

What he did do, however, was to advise those who were emigrating from the Netherlands to join our churches, which for us actually presented a problem. On the one hand, we were more than willing to receive these people into our churches and to help them in every way we could. After all, we were small; and any growth of this kind had its appeal. Nor would it have been a problem if our differences were only in terminology, as Schilder said. But, if behind the words there were real differences, as we felt there were, honesty required that this be explained to anyone intending to join our churches. And so, from the start, we followed the policy of carefully explaining to everyone we worked with, in as positive a way as we could, our commitment to particular grace, together with its confessional and biblical base, which they could expect to hear under our preaching. But for them at that point this seemed to present no problem (although later, of course, under the tensions which would finally develop, this would change). It was as though they accepted Schilder’s judgment, and were quite content with what they heard, so that in due time congregations were formed, first in Hamilton and later in Chatham.

It was, however, in the fall of 1948, just as Hoeksema was taking up his work as editor of the Standard Bearer again, that a letter arrived with quite a different tone; and, although it was a personal missive, Hoeksema published it immediately (and, we might note, without complaint of impropriety from anyone). Written by a Liberated pastor, it reflected on Hoeksema’s covenant view in this way:

I am going to oppose that view, my colleague, because I am of the opinion that this view is untenable on the basis of the Word of God and the accepted Confessions…. You call us Remonstrants because we accept the doctrine of Prof. Heyns. (There may be a difference in conception here and there: in the main, all our ministers are thinking in that direction.) You want to see only one line in Scripture, and there are ten times as many texts that draw another line, repudiated by you…. I therefore believe that we must fully express ourselves about this matter before we can fully recognize each other as sister churches. Also in regard to the advice which, for instance, I must give to our members in Canada (SB, Oct. 1, 1948).

For Hoeksema this came almost with a sense of relief. In spite of his deep regard for Schilder, this letter he felt came closer to reality than anything Schilder had said; and he was relieved to hear that someone in the Netherlands recognized this as well. But, at the same time, there was no eliminating the seriousness of what was said. Here was an open acknowledgment of real differences by this Liberated clergyman (and, according to him, by the rest of them also) who was admittedly committed to the Heynsian view of the covenant, and who covered the problems by accepting the view that there were two conflicting tracks of thought in the Word of God. Accordingly Hoeksema replied, after pointing out the seriousness of his denial of unity in God, in this way:

The matter of advising your members in Canada whether or not they ought to join our churches is not up to you only, but also up to us. We do not want Heynsians in our churches, still less, to organize Heynsian churches in Canada. If your members are really Heynsians, they must either become thoroughly Reformed, or they better join the Christian Reformed Churches. In them there is plenty of room. Or, better still, they could organize churches of their own, and call their own ministers from the Old Country.

Far more important to Hoeksema than gaining new members were the biblical and confessional principles upon which our churches stood (and which, if one will, were “settled and binding” in our churches, as Art. 31 stipulates), and this he wanted understood.

If, however, few in the Netherlands took seriously Dr. Schilder’s claim that our differences were simply in terminology and emphasis, it was different here. Almost immediately after his departure there appeared a determined effort on the part of some to prove that, regardless of what Hoeksema and Ophoff might say, the differences between our churches were in terminology alone, and they would do so by demonstrating that the word “condition” could be used in a proper, Reformed way. I remember it well, for my friends and I cut our theological teeth on that debate; and, if ever there was a battle over words, that was it. But what few thought to consider were the deeper questions which Hoeksema and Ophoff tried almost futilely to bring to the fore: whether the Liberated covenant view was not simply that of Heyns with its implicit common grace base; and whether it did not rest upon a dual approach to Reformed theology, in which what was said at one point might be properly contradicted at another, quite in conflict with that principle upon which our Reformed creeds were built.

But the problem had become even deeper than that. It was almost as though, after Hoeksema’s illness and Schilder’s visit, a subtle shift of loyalties had taken place, at least with some. When for a short time it had appeared that Hoeksema would no longer be leading the denomination, the vision of a new leadership arose before the minds of some; and, particularly with that sense of personal competence which Schilder had engendered in them, they saw themselves as a potential part of it. Thus, when Hoeksema so quickly recovered to take over the helm again, their dream was dashed, but never really died. In any case, it was clearly evident that on the part of many the attitude toward Hoeksema was no longer what it had been, and tensions began to develop.

Then Holwerda’s letter came. It was the summer of ’49, as Hoeksema and Ophoff were together on a preaching engagement in Chatham, that they were shown it by Mr. J. Koster. Actually, if I understand it correctly, the letter had been written to Mr. Dingman Scheele — a man I came to know well in later years, and with whom I often reviewed the events of those days. The group in Chatham wanted to organize, but were intent on doing it in the right way. Thus Scheele, an unusually spiritual and gifted man, took up a correspondence with Prof. B. Holwerda, the results of which were then shared freely among the members of the Chatham group, as Holwerda certainly understood and encouraged. It was no doubt as a result of this that the Chatham people asked to be organized with the provision that the Liberated view of the covenant could be maintained in their church; but that, they had been told, was impossible according to Article 31 of the Church Order (which was explained to them and which they came to understand and appreciate fully, as is reflected in Scheele’s later letter to the Standard Bearer — Vol. 27, pp. 104-106). In turn, they were also quite aware of the fact that both Rev. Kok and Rev. DeJong served on the committee which had insisted on this. And thus Holwerda’s next letter came with a shock, for it read:

Day before yesterday we held a meeting with Rev. Kok and Rev. DeJong, the purpose being mutual discourse. We had a wholly openhearted exchange of thoughts. They said this: Indeed, we have much to be grateful for to Rev. Hoeksema. But his conception regarding election etc. is not church doctrine. No one is bound by it. Some are emitting a totally different sound. Their opinion was that most (of the Prot. Ref.) do not think as Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff. And sympathy for the Liberated was great also in the matter of their doctrine of the covenant. They do accentuate differently in America, considering their history, but for the conception of the Liberated there is ample room…. I believe that joining the Prot. Ref. Church is calling. And let them then as Liberated preserve their contact with Holland by all means, and also spread our literature…. If Rev. Hoeksema’s conception was binding, I would say, Never join. Now I believe, however, that accession is calling; and then so that the Liberated also help to disseminate the dogmatical wealth of Holland in the Prot. Ref. Churches.

Now, I would suppose that, if one chooses, this letter can be read as little more than a friendly greeting together with some interesting information; but I can assure you that Mr. Scheele, to whom after all it was written, didn’t see it that way. To them in Chatham at that time something had to be wrong. They could hardly believe that Kok and DeJong would have said what Holwerda reported they did, in direct conflict with what so shortly before these same men had presented to them as the position of our churches; but neither could they believe that Holwerda would have misrepresented what went on. Quickly the letter was handed about; and it is not surprising that, when Hoeksema and Ophoff appeared, the letter was shown to them as well. Nor did they see any reason to keep it secret, for, after all, it concerned a public matter already being discussed by all. Without hesitation they gave Ophoff a copy, dictating it word for word when the script proved too difficult for him, and expressed their full approval for him to do with it as he would.

What followed, however, was a classic example of the old adage, “If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger.” Immediately protests began to pour in, not to what Holwerda had written, or to what Kok and DeJong were reported to have said, but to Ophoff’s publication of it. (Perhaps it was indiscreet, for he did soon apologize for having done so — at least as quickly as he had). But the fact was that this letter and its publication brought to the fore a reality that had to be met. The differences between our churches were real, as everyone knew; and there could be little question but that they were dividing our churches and separating many from the principles on which we had always stood.1

And then a second blow fell. From the Netherlands arrived a brochure written by Dr. C. Veenhof, entitled Appèl!, filled throughout with things like this:

Baptism, which is being given us by the Lord, always remains effectual, every day, every hour, until our death, yea, unto eternity…. Every second Jehovah repeats it: Carl, William, Mary, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Or, better yet, Jehovah does not repeat that word but He continues to say it; it comes to us from His heart in unbroken power, seriousness and grace.

This was not just emphasis and terminology; it was common grace through and through — not just the natural or cultural common grace of Kuyper, but a soteriological common grace like that of Heyns, in sharpest contradiction to the Canons. Even those among us who were most sympathetic to the Liberated were clearly embarrassed by it.

And with that, for all practical purposes, De Kous was Af.2 Our men continued to go to Canada to work; but wherever they went the question was the same. Did our churches have a covenant view or not; and, if so, what was it? And whatever answer was given, no one was satisfied. With the letter of Holwerda, our credibility had been lost. Nothing could be done but for the synod to speak, which it was requested to do by the committee in charge. And the result was the Declaration of Principles, a simple restatement of what had been established at our inception, and was confirmed by numerous ecclesiastical decisions all through the years, making it “settled and binding” as Art. 31 requires such to be (if we need say it yet once more).

But in actuality it came too late. Before one word of the Declaration was ever penned, Rev. Hettinga had come from the Netherlands and was going about recruiting members from our churches to organize a separate Liberated denomination — which, in terms of the Liberated concept of the church, could only be a de facto declaration that we were to them no longer a true church.

By that time, however, this had become the least of our problems. The friendship we had extended to Schilder and the Liberated churches had resulted in a sizable number of our men leaving our historical commitment to logical conformity in the Scripture, to the point where they finally left us to join themselves, not to the Liberated as might have been expected, but to the Christian Reformed Church, which “out of conviction” they had once left.

Decades have now passed, of course, and one would hope that the need for judgment or recrimination may be left in the hand of the Lord who alone can judge aright. Still at times the dream lingers that someday we might be able to sit down and discuss these things freely with our Liberated brothers — who still are reputed to have remained, in the midst of the apostasy of the Netherlands, among the most faithful to the Reformed faith. But realistically it is hard to see how it could be, at least as long as they continue to reject the need for logical consistency; for, after all, if what is said at one point may be contradicted at another (or, as Rev. J. Tuininga so strikingly put it, that to be Reformed is not to be a consistent — or “hyper”—Calvinist, or an Arminian, but both), what standard can be left by which truth may be set forth. It would seem in the end Hoeksema’s melancholic last words to Schilder are still as much as can be said:

In conclusion, I want to emphasize once more that the stocking is not finished. And if Dr. Schilder feels that because of the stand of our churches as revealed in the Declaration of Principles he does not want to unravel the tangle and start knitting anew, it suits me. Nevertheless, I want to state that in that case I am disappointed in

him, and for the rest say, “Vale, Amice Schilder.”

It was sad that it had to come to that within just a matter of months before Dr. Schilder was taken to be with their God. 

1 Although we can not be sure, at this point we can hardly but consider the possibility that, while Schilder was here and Hoeksema appeared to be permanently out of the picture, some kind of an understanding was arrived at between him and some of our men that they would see to it that our churches would back off from their historical emphasis on particular grace, and he would work at bringing our two denominations together in a sister-churches relationship, and direct their emigrants to join us when they arrived over here. In turn, it would seem to have been that Kok and DeJong, in traveling at the same time to Holland as they did, had in mind to assure the leaders there that, in spite of what Hoeksema was saying and the official policy being followed, they had sufficient backing still to bring this about, which in the end they certainly tried to do, and nearly did.

2 This is an allusion to a Dutch saying, De Kous is Af, which may be paraphrased to mean “the knitting of the stocking is stopped,” which was used by Dr. Schilder as the title of a rather bitter article in which he terminated his friendship with Herman Hoeksema after we had adopted the Declaration of Principles. It was as though he felt personally betrayed that we had not accepted his verdict that our differences were only in terminology, and had not received his view of the covenant as acceptable in our churches — even though Hoeksema had often reminded him from the start that the adopting of that would have been the equivalent of denying the principles to which our churches had been committed from their beginning.