The Final Test
“That’s all I have, Mr. Chairman…”
With these words to Rev. J. A. Heys, president of the synod, Rev. Herman Hoeksema leaned back in his seat, off to my left, in the front row of the delegates assembled as the 1963 synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Slowly he closed the black folder out of which he had been examining me in Dogmatics.
The place was the basement of the original building of First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the corner of Fuller and Franklin. In the auditorium of this church, as a small boy, some twenty years earlier, from high in the balcony I had caught my first glimpse of Rev. Hoeksema. For the past three years, I had been training for the ministry under him and Professor Homer C. Hoeksema in a small room across the hall from the large room in which synod was meeting, I was sitting, and the way into the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches would be opened to me.
The time was Friday morning, June 7, 1963.
At these words, I permitted myself a small, concealed sigh of relief. Four and a half hours of examination remained. But I had made it, more or less successfully, through the part of the public examination before synod that consisted of questioning by Herman Hoeksema in Dogmatics. Dogmatics is by no means the only subject in the seminary curriculum, but it is the main one. The time allotted at synod for the examination of a seminarian in Dogmatics is far longer than the time devoted to any of the other subjects. And every graduate from the Protestant Reformed Seminary knows that he must do well in the Dogmatics examination. Dogmatics gives the aspiring minister of the word and sacraments the essential content of his preaching and teaching.
Towards the very end of the examination, I had stumbled. The question concerned the doctrine of the last things. Hoeksema had asked about the structure of the book of Revelation. The precise answer escaped me. All that came to mind was a vague statement of the intensifying conflict between the kingdom of the beast and the kingdom of the Lamb. Not content with this generality, and teaching to the very end, Hoeksema hinted broadly at the opening of the book by the Lamb in Revelation 5. Recovering myself, I made haste to say that I would like to “revise” my previous answer by referring to the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven vials.
“You must not ‘revise’ your previous answer,” Hoeksema responded, genially, “but retract it.”
I had stumbled, but the stumble was not fatal.
The exchange had even drawn a chuckle from the delegates, in which I fancied I could detect some slight sympathy.
A sense of relief at this juncture in the grueling proceedings was appropriate.
Three and a half hours of intensive grilling in Dogmatics by Herman Hoeksema were finished.
I sat alone on the raised platform—the only graduate of the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Before me was the august body of ministers, elders, and professors of theology in whose hands was my future—the “fathers of the synod,” as Rev. Marinus Schipper was wont sonorously to address them in his pre-synodical sermons. They seemed eminently patriarchal to me on that June morning, some forty-six years ago now. They were not so much before me as I was before them. If I did not feel myself “naked to mine enemies,” as Cardinal Wolsey once described his predicament on the way to his fateful meeting with King Henry VIII, I felt myself “naked to mine” dignified and powerful judges.
It was a very hot and very humid June late morning. If air conditioning had been invented, it had not yet been installed in the basement of First Church.
And I had troubled my already burdensome synodical examination by a foolish decision. The night before the examination would begin, I had yielded to the temptation to play ball. (In my defense, mitigating, though not excusing, my fault, the temptation was well-nigh irresistible. It was fast-pitch softball, and the game was an important one.)
My chastisement was swift and severe. It was inflicted by the powerful right arm of a young Harlow Kuiper. Throwing across the diamond as I wandered about the mound, preoccupied with an impending synodical examination, the youthful Mr. Kuiper (who had an arm, as they say, like a cannon) struck me with great force full on the bones above and below the left eye.
I preached my specimen sermon to the synod the next morning in the auditorium of the old First Church with my left eye completely closed and the flesh around it hideously multi-colored. I gave my answers to the questions in Dogmatics glaring out upon the examiner and the “fathers of the synod” with one eye, and with the nagging thought, “What must they think of a seminary graduate who played ball the night before his synodical examination?”
Surely, I could afford to relax just a trifle at the conclusion of the all-important Dogmatics examination.
“…except that I have one more question for Mr. Engelsma,” Hoeksema continued.
I came to full attention, instantly on high alert. There was no doubt in my mind that, whatever this “one more question” might be, coming as it did after the examination in Dogmatics had been completed, it would be unique, and very likely uniquely difficult for me.
To me: “What is more real, the eternal counsel of God, or history?”
Hoeksema’s countenance was solemn.
The examination in Dogmatics was continuing. Indeed, it had climaxed. There could be no relief.
The Final Question
The members of the synod did not appreciate the final question. Neither did I. But our failures to appreciate the question were of a different kind. They did not know the reason for the question. No doubt, they were puzzled by it. I understood full well the reason for the question. But I did not like it, and heartily wished Hoeksema had not asked it.
Throughout the three years of my seminary training, Herman Hoeksema and I had carried on a running debate over this very question. He affirmed that the eternal counsel of God is “more real” than history. Early on, already in the first year, studying the first locus of Dogmatics, Theology, I had respectfully demurred. I did not deny that the counsel is “real,” or even that the counsel is the source and foundation of the reality of history. But I challenged the comparison, “more real.” History, I contended, is as “real” as the counsel, because “Jesus Christ died in history.” “More real” tends to diminish the reality of history and thus the historical cross of Christ.
It was an indication of the great theologian’s magnanimity (largeness of spirit) that he never shut me up by imposing his towering stature upon me, a mere student. He took my position seriously. He discussed the issue, rather than to lecture me about his stand. This was characteristic of the man. If one disagreed with him, on the basis of biblical, creedal, and reasonable grounds, Hoeksema was willing to discuss and debate.
Which is not to suggest that he changed his view in the least. Heart and soul, he was convinced that the eternal counsel is “more real” than history.
I had completely forgotten our interesting, and sometimes lively, debate over the reality of the counsel and history, eternity and time.
Hoeksema had not.
A final dogmatical question.
I frankly confess that I considered giving the answer I supposed Hoeksema wanted. For all I knew, the right answer might be decisive regarding my entrance into the ministry. The words, “one more question, Mr. Chairman,” deliberately spoken by one who did not speak idly at synod, rang in my ears. Might his reservations about my position be more serious than I thought? Had he decided to make an issue of our difference before the synod, as part—the climactic part—of the all-important examination in Dogmatics? At best, the answer expressing my convictions might very well lead to a debate in which I must certainly come off poorly. Was not the entire synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, committed as the Protestant Reformed Churches are to the highest esteem of God’s eternal counsel, expecting a seminary graduate to reply, unhesitatingly, “the eternal counsel”?
If the synodical examination of a graduate of the Protestant Reformed Seminary before Christ’s assembled church and, thus, before Christ himself, means anything at all, it means honesty. Precious as the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches is, and, therefore, highly desirable, it must be sought and entered in the way of pure truth, or not at all. Anything else is unworthy of the church’s head.
Carefully, but truthfully, I answered: “I reject the comparison. The counsel of God is ‘real.’ So also is history ‘real,’ indeed, ‘as real,’ because Christ Jesus died in history. The cross of Christ is, and must be, historical. The crucified Christ makes history ‘real.’”
For the first time in three and a half hours of examination in the grand truths of Reformed Dogmatics, a broad smile broke across the face of Herman Hoeksema.
“Mr. Chairman, I am satisfied,” he said. And if Herman Hoeksema was satisfied, the synod was satisfied.
I had not known Herman Hoeksema as well as I thought I did.
I got to know him better on that June morning, long ago.
Any other answer than the one I gave that morning would have disappointed him, would have disappointed him greatly.
His final question in Dogmatics was far more than a final question.
It was a final test of his student.
I had passed.