His Early Years
In our last article we began to narrate two important incidents which took place during the years which George spent in Calvin College. The first incident of which we spoke is the death of George’s father in the explosion which destroyed the furniture factory in which he worked. The second incident which needs to be reported is seemingly insignificant, but in the light of future events, of considerable importance.
To understand this incident, you must be aware of the fact that already during the years in which George was in college the common grace controversy was in the air. We cannot go into the history of this controversy in these articles, although this is, in itself, interesting enough. There were especially three reasons which we ought briefly to mention why common grace was already a subject of discussion and debate. The first was the writings of Dr. Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands. While originally a staunch defender of the Reformed faith, Dr. Kuyper had developed also various theories of common grace in his treatise: “De Gemeene Gratie.” He had done this at about the same time that he had, as the head of the Anti-revolutionary Party in the Netherlands, become Prime Minister. This rise to power was made possible by the formation of a coalition government which included the Roman Catholics. Whether there is any relationship here is not easy to determine, but it is quite possible that the development of common grace, at least in part, was an attempt to justify this political
coalition on the part of Dr. Kuyper. Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s views, because of his enormous prestige, were increasingly widespread.
In the second place, these same views came to this country and were especially adopted by a group within the Christian Reformed Church which was influential in the church and college. A magazine by the name of “Religion and Culture” was the mouthpiece for this element. By means of this magazine, common grace was introduced into the church and was propagated throughout the church. In the third place, these were also the years when Dr. Jansen was introducing his heresy into the church. He was professor of Old Testament in the seminary, and was calling into question various miracles in the Old Testament by means of a rationalistic and critical approach to Scripture. For these views he was condemned at the Synod of Orange City in 1922. Rev. H. Hoeksema played a leading role in the efforts made to condemn these views. (For those interested in more information on this subject, I refer the reader to Mrs. Hoeksema’s book, “Therefore Have I Spoken.”) What is of interest to us is the fact that, in support of his views, Dr. Jansen appealed to the doctrine of common grace. While the synod of 1922 condemned Dr. Jansen for his higher criticism, it did not enter into the common grace issue which Dr. Jansen had brought forward. That issue remained unresolved. But the result was that common grace did become an issue in the Church.
It was during his Seminary years that George Ophoff was assigned a paper on the subject of common grace as part of his school work. For months he labored with the problem and struggled with the question, but could find no light. His problem seemed especially to center on the questions of the Scriptural basis for common grace and the place which common grace occupied in the organic body of the truth of the Reformed faith.
You must understand that his whole approach was a naive acceptance of the doctrine. While the subject of common grace was being discussed, there were as yet none who were seriously questioning what the great Dr. Kuyper had taught. It was true that Rev. Hoeksema, especially because of the Jansen case, was becoming increasingly distrustful of the doctrine; and his dissatisfaction with the doctrine was to grow stronger as he wrote on the question in ‘‘The Banner.” Nevertheless, George Ophoff did not as yet know of such questioning, and was operating on the assumption that common grace was part of the Reformed heritage and a doctrine to be believed. But he could not square it with Scripture, and he could not harmonize it with the great doctrines of the Reformed faith.
The struggle continued for a long time. Finally, almost in desperation, he decided to approach the problem from the viewpoint of common grace as a false doctrine. To use his own words, “Suddenly the light went on.” All the pieces began to fall into place. All the loose ends disappeared. All the problems dissolved. The paper was, from this point on, very easily written. It became clear to him that the Scriptures taught no such thing and that the doctrine had no place in the organic body of the Reformed faith, but was a non-Scriptural addition. It is interesting to note that this latter point is still admitted by those who defend this doctrine. And in order to explain the contradictory position which common grace occupies in the body of Reformed thought, the defenders of the doctrine fall back upon the idea of “apparent contradiction.” This is in itself an admission of the fact that the doctrine does not fit organically into the whole of the truth of the Scriptures as developed in Reformed theology.
What is significant, however, is the fact that George Ophoff came to an independent conclusion with regard to the question while still in school. His views with respect to common grace were horn then. No doubt, he did not yet know what to do with this new insight. No doubt, the significance of it had not yet penetrated his soul. No doubt, he was not yet even clear in his own mind what all the implications were. And beyond doubt, he could not possibly envision what this position would hold for him in the future and what the consequences of this position would be. Only God knew that. But the fact is that he had set himself, independently, on a course of action which would have in the future the gravest consequences. When finally the time came for him to take his stand publicly in the Churches, it would not be the result of hasty conclusions or the influence of a powerful personality, but it would be the result of a position centrally taken when he wrestled with a paper for his professor and could find no answer until such a time as he saw how un-Scriptural common grace was.
How wonderful are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown!