A TIME OF DECLINE (1619-1834)
We discussed in the last two articles the sad condition into which the Reformed Churches had fallen in the period between the Synod of Dordt and the Secession of 1834. We discussed some of the major causes of this spiritual decline, notably the influence that the State had in the affairs of the Church.
Although this is an interesting, profitable, but also difficult subject, we will not enter into a discussion of the Scriptural view of the relation between Church and State. I would only like to call the attention of the reader to the fact that the State in the Netherlands could support its interference in ecclesiastical matters by appealing to Article XXXVI of the Belgic Confession. It is not the point of these articles to dispute the position of Article XXXVI; especially where the article maintains that the calling of the State is to “promote the true religion.” In fact, it is quite possible that from a principle point of view this article ought to stand unchanged. It is only our point to show that when the State itself becomes corrupt and still has influence in the affairs of the Church, the Church of Christ naturally suffers for it.
However this may be, we turn our attention now to some of the doctrinal discussions that engaged the Church during this period.
We do not intend to go into these discussions in detail; nor is it our purpose to discuss all of them—even briefly. We are only interested in giving some idea of how far the Church had drifted away from the truth and how deeply it had sunk into apostasy.
Nor do we want to leave the impression that there were no more defenders of the truth to be found during this period. This is far from the case. Although there were many false teachers and although every conceivable kind of heresy was being taught in the Church, there were always very strong and faithful defenders of the truth, men who tried to uphold the creeds, leaders (both ministers and professors) who pressed for discipline, who resisted the State, who wrote and preached against the evil about them. And very often they even had to suffer for their position. But mostly their hands were tied so that they could not accomplish their objectives. They were silenced while the heretics were encouraged. Their books in defense of the truth were put under the ban of the State, while the books of the heretics were given State approval.
And even though the people in the Church drifted into false security and dead orthodoxy; even though the Church became very worldly; there were many who saw these evils and who tried to stem the tide. They preached against these evils, wrote against them and did everything they could to arouse the people to greater faithfulness.
But the general condition of the Church was bad.
What were some of the major doctrinal controversies of this period?
There was first of all a controversy about the error of dispensationalism. The views of dispensationalism were first advanced by a certain Johannes Cocceius who was a professor of Hebrew in the University of Franeker (which university was a “hot-bed” of heresy throughout this period) and later professor of theology in the University of Leyden. He was in many ways a gifted theologian who wrote his own dogmatics and made some sound contributions to the development of the truth. But he advanced views that were contrary to the creeds in that he taught a kind of a dispensationalism that separated the Old Testament and the New, that made distinction between the Old covenant and the New, between Israel and the Gentiles and that led to a false pre-millennialism. In conformity with these views, he and his followers also attacked the Sabbath and insisted that the Lord had not intended that one day of the week be a special day of worship for the New Dispensational Church.
Secondly, we already noticed that a certain cold and deadly outward profession of the truth seized the Church at this time. Dead orthodoxy was a reality. The result of this was that all kinds of worldliness crept into the Church. Immorality, materialism, godless living was not at all uncommon. In defense of this worldliness certain men appeared who adopted antinomian positions. They taught that the child of God really had no moral obligation before God to keep the law, for he was justified only on the basis of Christ’s atonement and not on the basis of any works. Therefore a man had the right “to sin in order that grace might abound.” Often this position resulted in outright libertinism of the kind that troubled Calvin in Geneva. They deliberately sought out the pleasures of sin and tried to justify this godless conduct with theological arguments.
As a reaction to this there arose in the country various pietistic groups who emphasized subjective religious experience. In fact, these pietistic movements were one of the dominant influences of the period. There is considerable literature written on these movements and the interested reader can find this literature in any good library.
It is sufficient for our purpose to give a brief sketch of these movements and their basic teachings.
Although there were many such groups, they all had in common their emphasis on the necessity of inward spiritual experience. They spoke of the need for the child of God to come to the positive assurance of his salvation. But this assurance could only be based on some dramatic and clearly definable experience in which the believer heard the voice of God speaking directly to him. Only then could he justify his place in the Church and make a profession of the fact that he was a Christian with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Some of these groups did not go too far from the truth, although they were deeply mystical. They maintained for the most part the doctrines of Scripture and the creeds, although their emphasis was not so much on doctrine and objective truth as on subjective experience. Notable among these was William a Brakel, a theologian of this time who wrote an entire dogmatics that is still extensively used today.
But soon this mysticism led to a more dangerous experientialism. Peter Poiret, for example, a French refugee was a leader of such movements. He and his followers taught that Scripture was not the only means of revelation; God also spoke through an inner light (something on the order of the Quakers). In fact this inner light was a primary means of revelation. Scripture was secondary because it was cloudy and ambiguous filled with dark statements. Only the revelation which one received by inner light was clear and dependable. In fact, by this inner light even the heathen could be saved who never heard the gospel or saw a Bible. So, actual experience became the norm for the truth and for the life of the Christian. And this norm stood above the Word of God. All the experience of the Christian was divorced from the Word of God, was no longer dependent on the preaching of the Gospel and was itself the rule of doctrine and walk.
Soon these views led to all kinds of excesses; for, naturally, man could do anything he pleased and justify his conduct by appealing to an inner light which he had received.
But these views led also to some doctrinal deviations because they are surely closely connected with questions of the truth.
For one thing, the proponents of these views began to teach that a child of God could (and in fact, ought to) attain perfection in this life. He was able to attain to a life altogether free from sin. This, in turn, led to the view that the Church here on earth ought to be a pure Church composed only of perfect saints who lived by their “inner light” and were guided directly by God’s voice spoken to them apart from Scripture. The trouble was that this “inner light” said so many different things to so many different people.