I Remember Herman Hoeksema – Personal Remembrances of a Great Man (8)

A God-given Leader

In Richard Newhouse’s response to Herman Hoeksema’s “peccavi” (“I have erred”), “It took him forty years to admit he made a mistake, and then he did it in a language nobody can understand,” there was more than met the eye.

The remark reflected the awareness of the members of the Protestant Reformed Churches that Hoeksema was never wrong.

I do not at all refer to his spiritual life. He was a sinful man, with only a small beginning of the new obedience. He confessed this in his congregational prayers, in his sermons, and in all his writings. No theologian humbled the elect sinner, including, of course, himself, more deeply than did Hoeksema. He taught the total depravity of the natural man, unmitigated by common grace; the continuing total depravity of the regenerated child of God by nature to the end of his days, rightly applying Romans 7:24 to the believer; the defiling of every good work of the saint with sin; and the grace of God as the source of all good in the Christian.

He mentioned to me once, offhandedly, that his private prayer on the platform at church, in preparation for preaching, always was, “I repent of all my sins; forgive me.” “Offhandedly,” but with the unmistakable purpose that I should do the same.

Nor do I refer to his personal dealings with others in his everyday life. About this I know very little, and care less. But I do note that I found his dealings with me and with others courteous and brotherly during the three years of my contact with him in the seminary. By all accounts, his conduct in his marriage and family was exemplary. No one could ever blame him for a fault that disqualified him for the ministry. With the rarest exception, during all the long and bitter controversy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, that threatened the very existence of the churches he loved and that must have well-nigh killed him, he stuck doggedly to the doctrinal issue, while his opponents were relentlessly attacking his person.

But I refer to his public stands for truth and righteousness, his public instruction to the churches, and his public advice regarding important cases and issues in the churches, whether from the pulpit, in the Standard Bearer, in his many books and pamphlets, and at the church assemblies. Throughout his entire, long ministry, he was never, or almost never, wrong. Never did he have to say, “I have erred,” whether in English, Dutch, or Latin. Never did he have to recant a position he had taken. Never did he have to admit that he had misled the churches.

(I qualify my “never” by “almost never,” because he himself publicly announced a former error regarding a significant issue. Whereas he had once uncritically assumed the tradition that the “innocent party” in a divorce may remarry, he came to see that marriage is a lifelong bond, unbreakable even by fornication. There were a few other issues during his ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches about which, if he was not wrong, the Churches did not follow his lead.)

Hoeksema was almost always right.

He was right very early in his ministry, in the Christian Reformed Church. He was right in the “flag controversy” during World War I, as even Christian Reformed historians now openly acknowledge. He was right in the “Bultema Case,” regarding premillennial dispensationalism. He was right in the “Janssen Case,” regarding higher criticism of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. He was right in the “common grace” controversy, regarding a love of God in Jesus Christ that is wider and broader than election and regarding a spiritual union of the church and the anti-Christian world. The fruits of this doctrine in the Christian Reformed Church today are God’s own vindication of Hoeksema’s stand for truth and godliness in 1924.

He continued to be right in the prominent place God gave him in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The outstanding instance was the warning he sounded against a covenant doctrine of a (saving) grace of God to all baptized children, conditioned by the faith and obedience of the children, and the instruction he gave concerning the unconditional covenant of grace, when in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Protestant Reformed Churches stood at the crossroads. That he was right in his theology of the covenant of grace is being proved, and publicly demonstrated, today by the inevitable development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant in the heresy of the Federal [Covenant] Vision, as also by the bold and widespread teaching that God loves all the baptized children, desiring their salvation, where the Federal [Covenant] Vision may not be countenanced.

But Hoeksema’s instruction concerning the covenant in the controversy of the late 1940s and early 1950s was only the outstanding instance of his being right. There were many other instances, which, though of lesser magnitude, were important for the well-being of the Protestant Reformed Churches. At synod, for example, Hoeksema did not speak often, or quickly. But when he spoke, the synod usually heeded his advice, because he was right.

He was invariably right, because he worked hard and long to prepare himself for the critique or deliberation; because he studied every issue thoroughly; because he had a deep and broad grasp of the Christian faith as confessed by the Reformed church, with regard both to principles and application; because he was widely read in all branches of theology; and because the Spirit of Christ raised him up to be a leader in the church of Christ, giving him special gifts of mind, will, and speech.

There have always been such leaders.

Luther was one. Calvin was another. There have been others of lesser stature and place. They were men who saw the issues rightly, explained them clearly, and spoke out boldly. Most importantly, they stood for truth and righteousness uncompromisingly and fought for Christ’s cause without regard for the cost to themselves. God has used these men to preserve the church and to lead her deeper into the truth.

May God continue to raise up such men in the Protestant Reformed Churches and in other true churches of Christ!

For all their worth to the church, these men have never been appreciated by all. Their enemies have always reproached them as dictators and popes. In his “Life of Calvin,” Theodore Beza observed that Calvin’s enemies slandered the Genevan Reformer by charging that “he was ambitious, forsooth, nay, he even aspired to a new popedom.” Hoeksema suffered the same evil-speaking.

Even their own colleagues chafed under their leadership. Karlstadt’s break with Luther was doctrinal, but personal resentment over Luther’s leadership in Wittenberg also played a part. On his deathbed, Calvin recorded his awareness that the ministers of the neighboring city of Bern, Calvin’s colleagues in the Reformed ministry, “have always feared me more than they loved me. I want them to know that I died in the opinion that they feared, rather than loved, me.”

Just as envy played a powerful role in Jewish officialdom’s delivering of Jesus to Pilate (Mark 15:10), so it was a factor in the expelling of Hoeksema from the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 and in the opposition to Hoeksema by a majority of his colleagues in 1953. (This is not to suggest that there were no doctrinal issues, or that the doctrinal issues were not fundamental. I have established these truths earlier in this series.)

Prominent Christian Reformed theologians and ministers, some of whom Hoeksema had rescued in the “Janssen Case,” turned on him (to his great surprise and grief), because already in those early days of his ministry he was a dominant figure. He was always prepared; he was always convincing; he was always right.

In the great internal controversy of the Protestant Reformed Churches in the late 1940s and early 1950s, colleagues resented Hoeksema’s leadership in the denomination, and were determined to diminish it, if not to destroy it altogether. It was not Hoeksema, but his antagonist in the ministry of First Church, who famously said in the days leading up to the schism, “The issue is simply this, ‘Who is going to be boss of First Church?’” What motivated Hoeksema’s adversaries came out in the vicious attack on his person before the secular court, when they charged that he was determined to rule, and what he could not rule he ruined.

Who will deny that the men specially gifted by the Spirit as leaders in the church did not sometimes contribute to the resentment by their own sinful weaknesses? Even the sympathetic biographers and historians say the same things about them all—Luther, Calvin, Gomarus, Kuyper: strong-willed; outspoken; impatient of contradiction, particularly with regard to the confession of sound doctrine; sometimes fiery of speech. On his deathbed, Calvin confessed, yet once more to his colleagues in Geneva, his occasionally unruly temper.

But what folly, what disregard for the church of Christ, what ingratitude to God, to reject these men on this account!

Their sins are not to be excused. But those weaknesses did not disqualify these men for the position God gave them. It is not even unthinkable that it is exactly a nature prone to such weaknesses that is essential to the use God makes of such men in the church.

What have been the consequences of the rejection of these leaders for those who rejected them? Where have the would-be leaders led their followers?

What did the rejection of Jesus by the envious Jewish officials mean for the nation of Israel?

Where did Andreas Karlstadt lead his followers, having rejected God’s Luther? Into the debacle of the Peasants’ War, the madness of Munster, and scattering.

What were the consequences of the rejection of J. Gresham Machen for the Presbyterian Church in the USA?

The end of the Christian Reformed Church’s rejection of Herman Hoeksema is now plain for all the world to see.

When I was a boy, my father and uncles, committed members of the Protestant Reformed Churches and diligent observers of the church scene, all, over coffee on a Saturday morning would agree that one of the main problems with the Christian Reformed Church was that they did not have Herman Hoeksema as leader. I was not so sure in those days. I am sure today. Where would the Christian Reformed Church be today had it listened to Hoeksema’s instruction and warning concerning being genuinely Reformed in the world and had it respected, rather than resented and rejected, his God-given position of leadership.

And what has happened to those former members of the Protestant Reformed Churches who followed the “boss of First Church” and others out of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1953. Where are their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren? With rare exception, swallowed up in the Christian Reformed Church, which as I write is in the process of jettisoning the “Three Forms of Unity” as its binding creeds, and publicly, shamefully pleads for the approval of practicing sodomites in its fellowship in its magazine, The Banner (see the editorial in the March 2009 issue).

The good news is that, regardless of resentment and rejection, the men God raised up as leaders led. Luther led. Calvin led. Gomarus led. Van Velzen led. Kuyper led. Machen led. Hoeksema led.

Christ saw to it.

For the good of the church.

In Richard Newhouse’s mock-indignation at Hoeksema’s “peccavi” was recognition of Hoeksema’s leadership in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

It was recognition of Hoeksema’s true greatness as a leader in Christ’s church.

Hoeksema was always right.

Hoeksema’s response to Newhouse was not only the personal magnanimity (“largeness of soul”) of one who could bear easily what might be considered (but was not intended as) an insult. It was also the spontaneous response of a God-given leader in the church, towards the end of his life and work, who had learned to pay the price, from friend and foe alike, of faithfully carrying out the demanding task that Christ his Lord had thrust upon him.

For the sake of the church.