From Dort to Today (18): The Development of the Reformed Faith – The Christian Reformed Church

We have been speaking of the history of the Christian Reformed Church as it was established in this country. It was the denomination which carried on the traditions of the Reformation and the heritage of the Synod of Dordt. Its history is therefore the history of the Reformed faith in America.

There were, between the years of the founding of the Christian Reformed Church and the beginning of our own denomination, no momentous events. We do not intend therefore, to discuss in detail the history of these years. The problems which the Christian Reformed Church faced in the latter part of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s were problems which a new denomination, living in a new land, had to cope with in adjusting to the circumstances of a different culture.

The point of this discussion however, will be broader than a mere mention of some of these problems. Already in the early history of this denomination there began to appear issues which eventually would give rise to our own Protestant Reformed Churches. These issues were not really issues first in the history of the Christian Reformed Church. It would be better to say that there were influences at work—almost from the very beginning; influences which finally became issues, for they threatened the well-being of the denomination and its spiritual strength. They were influences which, if allowed to persist in the Church would erode her heritage which she had received from the Reformation and from Dordt. This is the point that needs emphasis.

Early in the history of the fledgling denomination known now as the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination sought the recognition of the Churches of the Secession from which they had come. Most of the membership had been closely associated with the secession movement in the Netherlands, and the Church was deeply interested in seeking and obtaining the recognition of these Churches in their mother country. It is not difficult to understand this. The reasons were: 1.) If any new denomination likes to have the recognition of its sister Reformed Churches. This was especially true in this case, since the Christian Reformed Churches felt very closely allied to the Churches of the Secession. 2.) Recognition by the Secessionist would aid them in the solution of the problems they faced with the waves of immigrants coming from the Netherlands. If the Churches in the “old country” would encourage their members to join the Christian Reformed Church, this would aid immeasurably the growth of the new denomination. 3.) The Christian Reformed Church had recently broken its ties with the Reformed Church of America; and recognition by the Secession Churches would be equal to approval by these Churches of their efforts to establish a new denomination.

Nevertheless, or many eyras, the Secessionists refused to grant such recognition. The reason was that the request put the Secessionists on a spot. There were people from the Secession in both the Christian Reformed Church and in the Reformed Church of America. And the Secession Church did not want to condemn their fellow members in the Reformed Church.

But, when the Secession Churches learned to the true state of affairs in the Reformed Church; when especially they learned that the Reformed Church did not condemn members in the lodges; they granted recognition to the Christian Reformed Church. In fact, when the Churches of the Secession merged with the Churches of the Doleantie under the leadership of Dr. A. Kuyper, this recognition continued in the new Gereformeerde Kerken. 1 The Christian Reformed Church succeeded in gaining what they desired.

This had several important results. Not all of them were good either. For one thing, this had the result of aiding considerably the growth of the Christian Reformed Church. This was not necessarily bad. For another thing, the influences of the Secessionists were soon felt also in the Christian Reformed Church. These influences were not always good. The doctrinal controversies in the Netherlands were carried over into this country, and into the Christian Reformed denomination. These doctrinal controversies concentrated around the points discussed in the “Conclusions of Utrecht.”2 So much was this the case that in 1908 the Christian Reformed Church felt the need of adopting these same Conclusions for themselves, which also they did.3

In connection with this, the Secessionists maintained, for the most part, such doctrines as infralapsarianism, mediate regeneration, temporal justification, and, in addition, they tended to the view of a general promise to all the children who were baptized. It was especially this latter point which had evil influence within the Christian Reformed Church. It paved the way for what later became known as the general offer of the gospel.4

In addition to these problems of the influences of the Secessionist, there were also other problems which had more to do with adapting the life of the new denomination to its home in America.

Some of these problems were:
1) The establishment of Christian Schools. The problem here was whether the schools ought to be parochial, i.e., church controlled, or parental. The problem was new, for in the Netherlands, the schools were all government controlled. The views of those supporting parental schools prevailed.
2) There were the minor problems of English preaching in the services rather than Dutch preaching.5
3) There were problems of the use of individual or communal cups in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; of choir singing in the worship services; of hymn singing instead of the Psalms; of changing the order of worship; of Sunday School; of whether the Consistory should meet with the minister before the service and shake his hand after the service.
4) There were problems of worldliness which was creeping into the Church. These problems had several angles to them, and are important enough for a little more detailed discussion. In the first place, there was the question of membership in the unions. This question of whether membership in the so-called neutral unions was acceptable came up as early as 1881. And from then on, the question had a long and troublesome history—a history which is a black mark on the Christian Reformed Church. In 1881, a warning was issued against such membership. In 1892, Synod decided that unions had to be individually judged and membership was permissible only in such unions which did not destroy Christian principles. In 1902 Synod decided there ought to be a Christian Labor Organization. A study of the possibility was made, and, in 1906, such an organization was formed. In 1914 and again in 1916 membership in “neutral” labor organizations was permissible.

In the second place, a growing tendency towards worldliness became so manifest in the Churches that in the early 1900s Synod felt constrained to warn against card-playing, dancing and movie attendance.

But these problems of worldliness were symptomatic of a deeper disease within the Church. There was a growing element within the Church which openly promoted such worldliness and membership in the unions under the guise of Calvinism. They maintained that true Calvinism really meant that a bridge ought to be built over the wall of the antithesis between the Church and the world. That this ought to be done was because there was considerable common ground on which the Church and the world could stand together—e.g., in the labor movement and in the struggle of the working man to better his lot. This remarkable view did not come from the intellectual originality of American theologians. It came from the Netherlands. In that country, Dr. A. Kuyper had written a huge treatise on “Common Grace”, and had advocated in this work that there was a continuous restraint of sin by an operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men. Further, he insisted that the fruit of this operation of the Spirit by which sin was restrained was a great deal of good which the reprobate wicked are capable of performing. And the conclusion of the matter was that the Church ought to join hands with the world in these areas where the world is doing so much good.6

The point is that the influences of this Kuyperian common grace came into this country and into the Christian Reformed Church. This was supposed to be true Calvinism then. And the tendency towards worldliness, with its doctrinal justification, grew.

At about this time there were also doctrinal controversies which troubled the Church and which had bearing on our own history. But this is for the next issue.

1Cf. my article in the February issue of Beacon Lights for this history.

2Cf. my article in the February issue of Beacon Lights for the content of these Conclusions.

3 I have inquired whether or not our Protestant Reformed Churches have also adopted these Conclusions of Utrecht. No one seems to know for sure inasmuch as the archives of our earliest combined Classes are not in our possession. It seems likely however, that we have, inasmuch as our Churches, in the early part of their history, adopted all the decisions of the Christian Reformed Church prior to a certain date, which date is probably somewhere around 1915.

4 It is my opinion however, that all these doctrines mentioned here, to a considerable extent, hang together. They are really implied in each other. They follow a consistent trend—towards error.

5 This was really not such a minor problem, especially in some sections of the country. While the new generation wanted English, there were many who insisted on retaining the Dutch in catechetical instruction and in the preaching for fear that a switch to the English would endanger the purity of doctrine. They were of the opinion that all American influences were bad and should be avoided. They wanted to retain a bit of Netherlands in America. There were some also who, quite frankly, thought that Dutch was really the only language in which theology could be adequately defined. Further, in Iowa this question led to severe trouble, especially in the Pella-Sully-Peoria area. During World War 1, the governor issued an edict that all public meetings had to be conducted in the English language, and should anyone disobey, he could not expect the protection of the law. The governor had an overdose of patriotism and considered all who talked a foreign tongue as suspect in their loyalties to America. He wanted to force his own patriotism on the people in this silly way. But the result was that when the people of the Christian Reformed Church in the Pella-Sully-Peoria are refused to comply, they suffered from mob action insomuch that a school and a church building were burned down.

6 It is quite possible that Kuyper, who in the earlier years of his ministry was Reformed, switched to this theory of common grace to justify his own conduct. As the head of the Anti-revolutionary Party in the Netherlands he became Prime Minister. But to accomplish this he had to form a coalition between his party and the Roman Catholics. He needed some theological justification for this strange conduct—conduct in contradiction with the principles of his Christian political party. Common grace was invented to accomplish this. Strange Calvinism.