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George M. Ophoff: The Polemicist (24)

In our last article, we were talking about the basic reasons for the doctrinal controversy which troubled our Churches in the years preceding 1953. Our purpose in doing this is to describe the role which Rev. Ophoff played in this controversy, for he took an active part in the defense of the truth during those years. We had talked about the fact that, though our Churches, in the last of the ‘‘forties” had consider­able contact with the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands and with many immigrants from these Churches, there were also deep doctrinal differences particularly on the question of the covenant of grace.

There were a number of ministers in our Churches at that time who were interested in seeing our denomination grow. While this was not in itself bad, I am convinced that this matter of church growth became more important to them than purity of doctrine. These men saw, in our contacts with the Liberated and in the large influx of Liberated into this country and Canada, an opportunity for the denomination to increase rapidly in size. If these Liberated people could be persuaded to join our Churches, the results in terms of growth would be spectacular.

The problem however, was the difference in the doctrine of the covenant. Contact with the Liberated brought these differences to the fore. I do not think that all the ministers who left us were simply determined to see the Church grow regardless of doctrine; but were them­selves persuaded, for one reason or another, of the truth of the Liberated position on this question. This is some­what strange when one considers that the errors of the Liberated were the same errors as had been rejected by our Churches in 1924, except that now they were applied to the covenant. But whatever may be the explanation for this, such was nevertheless the case. The result was that there began, from these minis­ters, a certain agitation in support of these Liberated views; or, at least, a certain agitation for freedom of belief in this area. If we did not agree wholly with the Liberated position, then at least we could tolerate their position within the Church.

It was a number of years before the split actually came that there were certain indications of trouble ahead. And it is not an exaggeration to say that Rev. Ophoff noticed this before anyone else in the Churches. Prof. Hoeksema has told me on more than one occasion that Rev. Ophoff spoke of these things to him. Prof. Hoeksema was at this time taking post-graduate work in the Seminary. And often, after classes were over, Rev. Ophoff would stop Prof. Hoeksema to talk with him awhile. In a very troubled frame of mind, Rev. Ophoff spoke of the fact that all was not well in the Church, that trouble lay ahead if things did not change, and that the troubles centered in the contacts which we were having with the Liberated Churches. It was hard at that time for anyone to believe the truth of these fears of Rev. Ophoff. Things seemed to be going along well. Dr. Schilder had come to this country, had proved an amiable man appreciative of the similarity between the struggles of our Churches and his Churches in the Netherlands. He had lectured and spoken throughout the Churches, and many had found him a congenial man of vast learning and of deep love for the Reformed faith. But, whatever else may be said about him, there were these important differences in the conception of the covenant.

It was not too long and the effects of Dr. Schilder’s teachings began to be heard in the Churches. A paper by the name of “Concordia” was being published in the West; and this paper began to include articles in it which included strong defenses of a conditional covenant. To these articles Rev. Ophoff addressed himself when he now saw proof that his fears were indeed not imaginary.

It must be understood that, prior to this time, our contacts with the Liberated Churches had been fruitful in spite of the differences. There had been a great deal of discussion concerning the whole idea of the covenant of grace both in the Netherlands and in the Standard Bearer. When Dr. Schilder was in this country, a conference was held with him in which all these things were discussed. There was even some talk about establishing sister-church relationships. And all this was worthwhile and interesting. It could have continued to be a profitable exchange of ideas.

But there were practical problems which intervened. The immigrants from Netherlands were looking for a church home. And they were interested in considering our Churches too. But they did not agree with our view of the covenant by any means. They were interested, therefore, in the question of whether they could be members of our Churches and still maintain their own view of the covenant. They had to know this. Honesty compelled them to inquire into this. And so they sought out what precisely the view of the covenant was as it was held in our Churches, and whether they would be compelled to forsake their own views if they should join. Rev. Hoeksema writes about this in the January 15, 1949 issue of the Standard Bearer. A certain Rev. Van Raalte had written to the Dutch immigrants concerning seeking a church home. In this advice which he offered, no mention was made of our churches. Rev. Hoeksema writes:

“That hurts. The reason why this hurts is not because we are so eager to increase the membership of our churches and to become a large denomination. We are not looking for anything like that at all. We strive rather to keep our churches as pure as possible, both in regard to doctrine and life. And as a result we cannot expect a remarkable growth, especially not in the miser­able age in which we live. There are not many that will accept the pure Reformed truth, and very few in our age will live from the principle of the antithesis and keep their garments clean. And as far as increasing our membership from the immigrants in Canada is concerned, I have stated before, and I say it again, that we detest Heynsianism; and if the Liberated Church members in Canada believe the Heynsian view of the covenant, they cannot be received as members with us unless they are converted. For it is our conviction that Heynsianism is not Reformed but Arminian.

But that does not mean that we like to be contemptuously ignored. . .”

So these very practical problems forced the issue in a way. Those who were interested in gaining the immigrants from the Liberated Churches without any change in their covenant conception now began open agitation for these covenant views.

In the May 1, 1949 issue of the Standard Bearer, Rev. Ophoff for the first time begins to attack these views. I want to quote rather at length from this article because, in a way it is important. It shows what other ministers in our Churches were writing concerning this question of the covenant. It demonstrates the seriousness of the issues involved. It gives us a glimpse into Rev. Ophoff’s polemical writings — of which there are many throughout the Standard Bearer. And it proves the deep concern which our leaders had for the truth of God’s Word.

But our quote from this article will have to wait to our next issue.