The Church before 1834 was in deep trouble. Every conceivable kind of heresy was running wild. Worldliness had infected the members to alarming degrees. There were those who protested all this and made efforts to bring about reformation; but these were unsuccessful. The faithful were too few in number; and the State was kindly disposed towards the heretics.
Although the heresies to be found in the Church were of every conceivable sort, the actual issues that finally brought separation were comparatively few and seemingly, rather minor. This was not because the faithful made no issues of the deep doctrinal questions involved, but rather because when the break finally came, the issues that were forced by the State Church and by the State itself were the only points that were seized upon as grounds for discipline of the faithful.
We can do no better than list these issues at the very start.
Although when the secession broke out in various places throughout the Netherlands, the points of dispute varied from place to place, one of the most common points was the matter of singing hymns. Soon after the Netherlands Reformation, a book of Psalms, a Dutch Psalter, had been prepared for use in the Reformed Churches. While this was the song book used for many decades, there was a gradual tendency to introduce hymns into the worship services. As is so often the case, this had led to the singing of many hymns that were thoroughly Arminian. Faithful people and ministers protested against this use of hymns and even refused to use them when they were commanded to do so by the Church and State officials.
This seems like a rather minor issue over which to secede from the Church. But, on the one hand, it was symptomatic of a deeper spiritual illness—the illness of Arminianism that had reared its hideous head in the Church so soon again after being officially condemned at Dordt. And, on the other hand, our fathers were not of a mind to split the Church on the “hymn question”; but some of them were disciplined by the State for refusing to allow hymns to be sung.
Secondly, there was the issue of the baptism of infants. There were many Churches where the truth was no longer preached. Yet, in these Churches were pious saints who mourned the departure of their ministers from the Reformed faith. They made their protest known when they had to baptize their children, for they refused to answer “Yes” to the question: “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?” They could not in good conscience say that what was taught in their Church was the true and perfect doctrine of salvation. Of course, they were refused permission to baptize their children. So they often went instead to other Churches where the truth was being taught; and they had their children baptized there even though they were not members of that congregation. To this the ministers agreed.
This was a mistake both on the part of the people and on the part of the ministers that baptized their children. If they could not, before God, answer “Yes” to the second question of the Baptism Form, it was high time they were doing something about the sad state of affairs in their congregation. And no minister has the right to baptize a baby of a family from another congregation.
Yet, we must remember that these people were desperate. They did not know which way to turn. They tried to protest the heretical teachings of their ministers, but were stymied by their Consistories. They tried to carry their grievances to higher ecclesiastical assemblies, but these were governed by the State and the State was very kind to heretics in those days. They could not easily move to a town where there was a Church with a faithful minister, for the faithful (those who later took part in the secession) were of the poor and humble folk who had a struggle to earn their daily bread. Their plight was very sad. And desperation forced them to do this.
Thirdly, there was the much more serious question of the creeds. There were several angles to this question. For one thing, those who were teaching false doctrines in the Church were doing so in open opposition to the creeds. Of course. The creeds of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were the same as we have today. And these creeds were specific and to the point on all questions of doctrine. No heresy could be introduced without a man taking issue with the confessions. The liberals within the Church, however, simply ignored the confessions. They acted as if these creeds written in tears and blood did not even exist. And if their blatant opposition to the creeds was called into question, they merely shrugged the matter off by claiming that the confessions had no authority.
The Reformed ministers appealed to the National Synod to declare the creeds authoritative. This was done as early as 1819. But the National Synod refused to do this. Our fathers did not want to give the creeds an authority above the Scriptures: they merely wanted the Church to maintain what it had always maintained: that the creeds had authority to bind the ministers in their preaching unless they were shown to be in conflict with God’s Word.
All ministers really agreed to this binding of the creeds also when they signed the Formula of Subscription1. The trouble was that the National Synod had also revised this Formula so that it excluded the Canons. This was a very obvious attempt to eliminate opposition to the Arminianism that had re-entered the Church.
Another facet of the authority of the creeds was the decision of the National Synod that ministers did not have to use the Liturgical Forms in the Churches such as the Form for Baptism and the Form for the Lord’s Supper. Evidently, it was rather common practice for some ministers to substitute other forms, forms of their own making, or no forms at all. These Forms are also confessions and contain some very vital doctrines of the Reformed faith. In opposition to these doctrines, the Forms fell into disuse. But the National Synod refused to instruct the Churches to use these Forms and said only that they were of some use for inexperienced ministers.
This question of the authority of the creeds is very important. If men can ignore the creeds, deny the doctrines of the creeds, teach heresies condemned by the creeds, anarchy and chaos is the result in the Church. Yet much of the same thing is done today even in Reformed Churches in this country. Heresies such as God’s universal love and Christ’s universal atonement are openly taught although specifically condemned by the confessions. And there is no one to stop these heresies. The result is that a loud cry goes up from liberals that the creeds need revision; that they are sadly outdated; that perhaps we can do away with them altogether inasmuch as they are only barriers to Church union.
Finally, (and this became the immediate occasion for secession) there were pamphlets being circulated by the Reformed ministers condemning the evils in the Church. Since they could gain nothing by appealing to ecclesiastical assemblies, they took to the printing presses to try to stem the tide of worldliness and false doctrine. It was these pamphlets which brought matters to a head. When the National Synod was condemned for its protection of heresy; when the ministers defended their position on the “hymn question”; when the loose morals of the clergy were exposed and judged in the light of God’s Word; then the liberals rose to action to silence those who wrote them.
The trouble was the liberals were permitted to write anything that they chose without being reprimanded in any way. But the Reformed were censured for appearing in print with a defense of the historic Reformed faith.
1This Formula is still signed by all ministers and office bearers in our Churches. You can find it in the back of the Psalter. It is suggested that you read this over in connection with this article.