Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
For some time now we have been dealing with the relationship between the Protestant Reformed Churches in America and the Liberated (Vrijgemaakt) Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. I have enjoyed doing this since it touches on the life and development of that part of church history in the middle of which I was privileged to live as a maturing child and young man; and my sense is that what happened during that time was important, not just for the Protestant Reformed Churches as such, but as a reflection of certain dimensions of spiritual practice and doctrine which touch on the essence of what Christianity is about. My regret is that so little attention has been given it since that time; and it would appear that there are others who feel the same, if I can judge from the rather frequent expressions of appreciation I have received from those who have followed what I have written.
In all of this, however, one thing has surprised me, the absence of comment from those who might be expected to take exception to at least some of what I have said—members of the Liberated Churches, and those who followed Rev. DeWolf in 1953—until, that is, just recently. A short while ago I received a very kind letter from a member of the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands who has ,been following my articles, and disagrees with certain aspects of my presentation. He did ask that I not publish his letter inasmuch as he fears his limitations in the English language might have led him either to misunderstand what I wrote, or to express himself inadequately. It is a request I cannot but honor (although he does do quite well); but there are at least a few points he makes which do warrant consideration.
He expresses regret that since 1951 the Liberated Reformed and Protestant Reformed churches have never been able to work together again; and that is a regret we certainly share, as did Rev. Hoeksema in his rueful answer to Dr. Schilder’s final and rather curt editorial to us, “De kous is af,” or “The stocking in finished.” Hoeksema concluded his response with these words, “I wish 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, ‘Vade, Amice Schilder’.” Deep in his heart he felt that as Christians we ought to be able to pick up and start over again, even while with his mind he knew it would not be. Our differences were simply too great, and went too deep. The knitting had indeed become too tangled to go on: or rather, one might say, it was too tangled from the start ever to have been properly begun. Let me try to explain.
Prior to that, throughout the decade of the 40s, the Protestant Reformed Churches, and Rev. Hoeksema particularly, had put a great deal of effort into trying to forge a working relationship with Dr. Schilder first, and then with the Liberated Reformed Churches in whose birth Dr. Schilder played such a prominent part; but all that had come out of it was the troubled sense that it would not be done. There were differences between us in mentality and spiritual perspective, which stood in the way; and I fear still do today, as I believe this letter from our friend, as kindly drafted as it is, demonstrates.
One of the first points at which this comes out is in his questioning of my attempt to show that the break between our two churches had for all practical purposes been there well before the Declaration of Principles was ever penned. As carefully as I tried to bring this out—for I know it is a bone of contention—he cannot seem to grasp the fact that the Declaration of Principles was not a confessional statement to which those who joined our churches had to subscribe, but a simple setting forth or declaration for those with whom we were working as to the doctrinal convictions which live within our denomination, and which should be understood and respected by anyone seeking to live and work within our midst. We simply did not want them to think we were different from what we are. But this is apparently something which the Liberated mind could not, and still today cannot, seem to grasp; and it cuts across the whole spectrum of religious perspective and Reformed thought. It begins actually, as we have tried to show in recent articles, with a variation in our concept of logic itself. It involves a difference of viewpoint—as our friend’s letter also brings out—concerning the nature of the true church, and its identity. It relates to one’s perspective as to the place which children have in the covenant of God. And finally, when everything is said and done, it comes down to what finally proved to be the primary point of contention between us, the question of conditionality in the covenant of grace. These were, and are, important issues (each of which we hope to examine as time goes on); and because of them it had proved impossible for us to work together—to knit a common stocking if you will—with the kind of love and understanding such a mutual effort requires. The love and understanding were not there; and accordingly our knitting had not as much as begun.
But let us get back to where it started, that sad history through which the yam became tangled; and for this there is perhaps no better source than the long series of editorials which Rev. Hoeksema wrote concerning Dr. Schilder and the Liberated Churches, particularly after the end of the war (a series I wish could be reprinted for all to read), even while bearing in mind from whence the Protestant Reformed Churches had come.
We, after all, having originated out of the controversy over common grace, had gone on also to develop a positive and consistently Reformed theology of grace, an effort which had brought us to what we believed to be a new and fresh approach to the doctrine of, the covenant. To us it was meaningful- and gratifying, avoiding many of the problems over which those in the Netherlands were being tom apart; and it troubled us that no one else seemed to care.
Then in 1939 Dr. Schilder came to our shores. Not only did he stop to meet us, but by the time he left for home we felt that we had gained a friend. Having warmed to the graciousness of his personality, we felt sure that at last there was a major Reformed theologian who would give our doctrinal efforts serious consideration, which in his capacity as editor of De Reformatie (perhaps the most respected Reformed periodical of that day) he was quite able to do. But it was not to be; the Second World War intervened.
All through that war we waited and prayed, while hanging on every bit of news that filtered across the sea in the hope that the Lord would spare the doctor, hated as he was by the German forces under whose dominion he lived. And the shock came when we heard that his greatest enemies had proved to be not the Germans, but those of his own church. They had actually used the cover of the war, when he was in hiding, to deprive him of his office as professor, and his place in the Reformed Churches to which he had given his life, all without an opportunity for open discussion or for him to defend himself. He had been forced, together with his friends, to leave and form a new denomination of their own. It was so reminiscent of what we had been through in our past that immediately there sprang forth for them a deep bond of sympathy and love.
And then the war was over. Details of what had happened came through, each of which was reported and analyzed in the pages of the Standard Bearerand among the people in their homes (I remember well the Sunday afternoon conversations about it all, between my parents and their friends). Those were days in which people cared, studied, and struggled to understand what was happening to the churches, together with the doctrinal causes for it all. But there was a disturbing element as well: the covenant view defended by our new Liberated friends showed closer affinity to that of the Christian Reformed than to our own—with one exception, they openly professed to reject common grace. And that was our hope. We wanted to believe that somewhere under the tangled mix of theological elements being disputed, there would be found a common thread which would draw us together as one. At least for that we longed and, as soon as open communications began again, listened with straining ears.
We waited, then asked, and finally pleaded. The Liberated knew of our sympathies, that was beyond question; but would they please consider the problems we faced in the theology they expounded, and give some consideration to what we held instead? Some said they would—although by no means the men of greatest ability and prominence. But that did not matter; this was something in which all should be free to have a place. So when a few began to write, Hoeksema eagerly took what they produced, translated it, and published both the English and the Dutch so that our people could follow it through as the discussion developed, only to find these articles to cease to appear before the points of real problem were ever met. Still we were not being taken seriously.
In fact, in that respect even the long awaited visit of Dr. Schilder was a disappointment. In many ways it was a wonderful time. His ingratiating personality warmed the hearts of our people once again; and the brilliance of his lectures thrilled them to the point that they were spoken of for years. But still things were not right. To begin with, of course, Rev. Hoeksema had been laid low by a massive stroke, and could take but a minor part—a providence which we must to this day accept. But even more there was the fact, which only Rev. Ophoff pointed out at the last conference which was held, that the real points of difference between us were not being talked about.
It was almost, therefore, with a sense of dismay that we learned in 1948 that the Liberated synod had voted to seek a sister-church relation with us. It was not that we did not feel honored; it was just that, having had no substantial discussion between us, we were not anywhere near being ready for that. But maybe, at least so we wanted to think, that was what was meant; and soon we would be presented with a plan for meaningful talk. But again months passed, and nothing was heard.
And then the silence was broken, as though by thunder, with that letter of Prof. Holwerda—written privately for other ears. The committee had met, we learned, not with official representatives, but with two private individuals who happened to be visiting in their land. That, however, was not the greatest problem; it was what they talked about. They did not talk about what we believed, and whether they understood our biblical basis for it; but simply whether the views of Rev. Hoeksema, upon which our churches had been built, were binding, or could they be safely ignored? Without one engagement of meaningful discussion, our doctrinal positions were being dismissed as unworthy of consideration; and those who had joined our churches were being told to have nothing to do with them. The theological positions on which we had always stood were simply dismissed as unacceptable. This was hardly the knitting in good faith of an ecumenical stocking, but a kind of purposeful tangling of the threads instead.
And what followed perhaps hurt even worse. Suddenly there appeared on our shores a pamphlet, the most significant part of which was written by Prof. C. Veenhof, under the title Appel. Here was a man we trusted, for he had been a personal correspondent of Rev. Hoeksema all through the war. Hoeksema had addressed him as “neef” (nephew) so as to pass back and forth in coded messages information about Dr. Schilder, as though they were all part of one family. Certainly he, we thought, would have understood and respected what we thought; but in fact his composition, a defense of the Liberated covenant view, was so full of blatant common grace, in fact unashamed Arminianism, that even those among us most sympathetic to the Liberated cause were made to blush. Nearly five years had passed since the war, during which opportunities for discussion and dialogue had abounded, but never been held. We had sent over as much of our material as we could in English and in Dutch, and apparently had received little serious thought. The knitting had not begun; and how could it be, with threads as tangled as these had become.
And that is the point. Efforts to come together in a mutual sharing and consideration, of theological thought so that we might learn from each other, correct each other’s shortcomings, and build together toward a common theological goal and ecclesiastical life were getting nowhere. The only thing that seemed to matter was the question of whether we were really serious in our convictions, whether we considered them binding or not, when for any Reformed man the answer to that is quite clear. There is one thing binding and that alone, that which is taught in the Word of God, and that which derives from it—as set forth in the Reformed creeds—together with, by extension in the practical applications of ecclesiastical life, those things which are proved to be based on it (Church Order, Article 31). But such is not found in simple, cold formulations; it takes place only where this binding authority is used in the life-of the church, in an active interchange of conviction between congregations within a denomination and, where it is possible, with those outside. This last we had hoped could be realized between us and the Liberated Churches, a willing engagement in theological and ecclesiastical interaction with mutual interest in and respect for each other. But by 1950 it was evident that this was not to be. We saw no real interest in what we believed, and have not to this day; and without it the stocking was indeed “af.” In fact, it had never really had a start.