During the three years of my close contact with the Rev. Prof. Herman Hoeksema in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, I found him to be unfailingly magnanimous.
This will surprise those whose judgment of the man has been formed by the slanders of his theological and ecclesiastical foes.
It may also surprise those who conclude from Hoeksema’s uncompromising defense of the gospel of grace, and sharp condemnation of theologians who deviated from it, that personally Herman Hoeksema was narrow, determined to have his own way, sensitive to any slight of, or disagreement with, himself, and ready to strike out at those who criticized him.
Magnanimity is a lovely Christian perfection.
Literally, the English word, derived from the Latin, means ‘largeness of soul.’ It is the grace, not only of openness to disagreement with oneself (which is not the same as tolerance of disagreement with the word of God), but also of bearing insult and abuse patiently, so that one neither reacts in anger to contradiction, nor retaliates for injury, nor becomes embittered by wrong done to himself.
The magnanimous man graciously puts up with those who hurt him.
The opposite is pettiness; sensitivity to every slight; a brooking no disagreement; and vindictiveness—smallness of soul.
The Greek word in the New Testament that refers to magnanimity is usually translated by the Authorized Version as “longsuffering.” Literally, the Greek word means ‘long of spirit.’ This is the word translated “suffereth long” in I Corinthians 13:4: “Charity suffereth long.” Love in one who has the Spirit of Christ expresses itself by graciously and patiently putting up with the neighbor who injures him, especially the neighbor in the church.
The virtue of magnanimity is especially necessary in a minister. The minister is exposed, more than any other, to personal criticism, slight, and abuse—real injury. Weakened, like every other human, by a sinful nature, the minister is tempted to assert himself, to strike back, and to become bitter. But the result of this pettiness, this smallness of soul and shortness of spirit, would be senseless and profitless strife in the church, a weakening of his teaching ministry, and spiritual harm to himself (bitterness corrodes the Spirit’s work of grace), to say nothing of interference with the building of the kingdom of Christ.
With good reason, therefore, Paul bound upon young Pastor Timothy (and the Holy Spirit binds upon every minister, old as well as young), with solemn charge (“before God and the Lord Jesus Christ”), that he “exhort with all longsuffering” (II Tim. 4:2).
I saw something of the large soul of Herman Hoeksema in his response, on one occasion, to the reaction of Richard Newhouse (yes, the little Dutchman of Hope figures in our story once again) to his (Hoeksema’s) “peccavi.”
In the February 15, 1960 issue of the Standard Bearer, Hoeksema introduced his editorial with the information that the editorial would consist largely of his publishing a protest by the “Orthodox Protestant Reformed Church” (the consistory of the schismatic “First Orthodox Protestant Reformed Church” of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the president of which was the Rev. Hubert De Wolf) to their synod. (The content of the protest was sad. It indicated that the consistory was unhappy with the doctrinal compromise that their synod was making in order to be received back into the Christian Reformed Church. But this is another story.)
At the end of his brief introduction to the publishing of the protest, Editor Hoeksema wrote, “Here, then, follows the protest.”
What actually followed, however, on the pages of the February 15, 1960 Standard Bearer was not the protest at all.
Rather, there appeared a catechism of sorts, treating the reorganization of Second Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids in the turbulent days of the schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches of the 1950s and various and sundry aspects of Reformed church polity.
Obviously, the kind of printing error had been made that keeps editors awake at night in fear of its happening and that embarrasses them when it occurs.
Aggravating the mistake, and compounding the confusion, were that Hoeksema appended remarks at the end of what ought to have been, and was advertised as being, a protest (but was not) that applied to the non-existent protest, but not at all to the very real catechism. His editorial concluded, “The reader will agree with me that the above [protest] is a thoroughly Protestant Reformed document.”
An explanation of the glaring mistake would be necessary.
The explanation was forthcoming in the next issue of the Standard Bearer (March 1, 1960). It read as follows:
All our readers, no doubt, will by this time have wondered about my editorial in the Feb. 15 issue of our paper. The explanation is that, instead of the protest I meant to publish, something else appeared and the protest was left out. Hence I now publish the entire editorial as I meant to write it. You ask who is to blame for this ridiculous error. Let us say: the undersigned, although he still cannot understand how it could possibly have taken place. Just remember, dear reader, that nihil humanum alienum est mihi. And I say peccavi. Perhaps you cannot figure this out either. Then you better ask someone that knows Latin.
Finally, the elusive protest did, in fact, appear.
Peccavi”—Latin for ‘I have erred.’
There would be one “dear reader” who would not so easily be placated by Hoeksema’s “peccavi.”
At that time, still in college, I worked for a farmer in the Riverbend area, who also employed Richard Newhouse, the venerable elder of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in what is now Walker, Michigan. Newhouse, a widower, lived in a trailer on the farm, in the shade of a large apple tree. Often, of an early evening, after milking, I would walk over to the trailer, to visit with Mr. Newhouse, whose company and conversation I greatly enjoyed.
One evening, soon after March 1, 1960, I discovered an agitated Dutchman. Newhouse sat on a raised platform (otherwise the short man could not see out of the windows of his trailer), seated in his big, overstuffed chair (very much like a little lord on his large throne), waving the latest issue of the Standard Bearer (next to the Bible his favorite and most authoritative reading).
There was no polite greeting, no question about the cows, no inquiry after my studies.
Rather, an abrupt, “Wat is dit? Wat is dit?”
“Peccaaavi!” “Peccaaavi!” “Peccaaavi!” (Thus he grossly mispronounced the Latin.)
With some academic pride, I fear, I could explain to him that “peccavi” (I took pains to correct his pronunciation by my own careful enunciation—a completely wasted effort) was Latin for “I have erred,” or, “I have made a mistake.”
If I expected some praise for, or even recognition of, my knowledge of a foreign language, I would quickly be disabused of the notion.
Newhouse paused for a moment to digest the information, and exclaimed, “Peccaaavi! Peccaaavi! It took him forty years to admit he made a mistake, and then he did it in a language nobody can understand.”
Young and naïve, I filed this bon mot for specific, future use. The near future.
In the fall of the same year, I began my seminary studies with Prof. Herman Hoeksema. Not long after the start of the school-year, during coffee break in the kitchen of the old First Church at the corner of Fuller and Franklin, as Hoeksema was lighting his massive pipe, pleasurably filling his lungs (and the room) with clouds of smoke, I asked him, casually, “Do you know Richard Newhouse?”
“Do I know Richard Newhouse?” he responded. “I know Richard Newhouse.”
Whereupon I related, with gusto, the tale of Newhouse’s reaction to my professor’s “peccavi,” concluding with an enthusiastic, full quotation of Newhouse’s “it took him forty years to admit that he made a mistake,” etc.
As I reflect today on my temerity, there comes to mind the proverb, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Of course, Hoeksema did know Newhouse—a wholehearted, lifelong supporter and friend. But even then…
And Hoeksema did not know me, except as a fledgling seminarian, and apparently cheeky.
A man with a small soul would have put me in my place, and perhaps Richard Newhouse too, with a withering look or a cutting remark, and likely both.
Hoeksema did no such thing.
He threw his head back and roared with laughter, hard and long.
“You say hello to Newhouse for me. And you tell him that he ought to learn some Latin” (which I did).
There was no defensiveness, no sensitivity to what could easily have been taken as an insult, no involuntary anger, no striking back against a perceived slight (or against the “slighters”), no putting of lesser folk in their place, not even a struggle to gain his composure.
In the remark by Newhouse, to which Hoeksema responded with magnanimity, there was more than meets the eye.
That “more” brings to light another aspect of Hoeksema’s greatness.