I Remember Herman Hoeksema – Personal Remembrances of a Great Man (9)

Silence on the Schism

During my three years of seminary training under him, from 1960-1963, Herman Hoeksema never spoke of the great schism of 1953 in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Never, whether in class or during the breaks, did he refer to, much less excoriate, the ministers who were responsible for the schism.

Indeed, he never made much in class of the doctrinal issue that was at the heart of the schism. When the subject of the covenant came up in Dogmatics, he would give it its due, explaining it as God’s bond of fellowship with the elect in Christ, established by an unconditional promise. I think now he was checking on my orthodoxy, or the level of my theological development, by assigning me Genesis 17:7 for practice preaching at some point in my seminary years. But he did not dwell on the subject of the covenant. He did not delve into the doctrinal differences concerning the covenant in the Reformed churches. And he never made the subject an occasion for raising the history of the controversy over the covenant in the Protestant Reformed Churches for some six stormy years.

I did not recognize this curious silence at the time. I wish I had. Then, I would have pressed the matter at every opportunity, asking about the doctrinal, church political, and personal aspects of the conflict. Especially would I have requested of my professor the fullest and most detailed explanation of his understanding of the reality of the covenant, from its source in the triune being of God to its perfection in the new world. I would have inquired exactly how he came to his covenant conception and where its origins lie in the Reformed tradition.

Only after I was in the ministry, and Hoeksema was gone, did it strike me that he had said virtually nothing about the struggle of 1953.

Hoeksema’s silence about the schism of 1953 puzzles me.

I entered the seminary in the fall of 1960, a mere seven years after the split. In numbers both of pastors and of members, the churches were still suffering the devastating effects of the schism. The deep wounds of that fierce war between colleagues and fellow church members (one must not measure the severity of church conflict by the size of the church) had to have been still fresh in his soul.

One might have thought that the schism and its doctrinal cause would have dominated the instruction, in class and out of class. Instead, the schism was never mentioned.

It was as if, had Abraham Lincoln lived, an aspiring politician studied government, one on one, in 1872 with the then retired president of the United States, never to hear of the Civil War and only now and again to be reminded, albeit forcefully, that separation of a state from the Union is revolution.

I have wondered why—why the strange silence? Was the subject too painful for him? Or, was he weary of fighting that battle? Or, did he think that he had written volumes on the schism and its doctrinal component and that any seminarian worth his salt could read, or should have read, what he had to say on the pages of the Standard Bearer? Or, did he regard the schism as past history, which must not interfere with the task of giving a complete, well-rounded theological education in the present?

The Exception

There was one exception.

In October, 1960, the schismatic “Protestant Reformed Churches” held a special synod in order to consider returning to the Christian Reformed Church. Hoeksema wanted to know the discussion and decision of this synod. It was, of course, unthinkable that he himself would attend the synod. But he had an agent at hand—me. I was summarily delegated, on behalf of Herman Hoeksema, the Standard Bearer, and the Protestant Reformed Churches. Since seminary was in session and since I was the only student, seminary was canceled for the duration.

Hoeksema’s report in the Standard Bearer of the decisions of the schismatic synod was based on my first-hand account and on the documents I managed to gather. Hoeksema referred to my reportorial role: “According to our reporter…” (“Fast Disintegration,” the Standard Bearer 37, no. 4 [Nov. 15, 1960]: 76); “This I learned from the party that reported to me” (“Fast Disintegration,” the Standard Bearer 37, no. 5 [Dec. 1, 1960]: 101).

When I dutifully reported on the proceedings of the synod of those who had in fact separated from the Protestant Reformed Churches, Hoeksema talked about the schism of 1953, and the ministers who had brought it about. His chief concern was whether any of the delegates and congregations indicated, finally, a willingness to return to the Protestant Reformed Churches (none did). His inquiries about the synod resembled David’s asking the messenger about the safety of the young man Absalom.

The motion at the special synod of 1960 to return to the Christian Reformed Church, vigorously promoted by many delegates (none more vociferous on behalf of returning than Rev. H. De Wolf, Hoeksema’s former colleague in First Church of Grand Rapids), failed on a tie vote of eight to eight. It would pass overwhelmingly at the synod of 1961.

My attendance at the schismatic synod was an eye-opener, if not for Hoeksema, then for me. But Hoeksema also learned some things. Within the very short span of seven years, the churches of that synod were disintegrating, as one after another of the synodical delegates admitted. Speakers disclosed that some of the ministers had in mind to return to the Christian Reformed Church as soon as the split occurred in 1953, if not before, and that these ministers had been working actively in the churches to this end since that time. All the while these ministers had been claiming publicly that they and their churches were determined to be and remain Protestant Reformed.

It was evident also from the angry speeches of some of the elders that they and others of the membership of those churches had been betrayed by the ministers. Having led the people out of the Protestant Reformed Churches with firm assurances that their churches were, and would always be, Protestant Reformed doctrinally, these same ministers were now bent on delivering the people over to the theology and life of common grace in the Christian Reformed Church.

Debate at a Schismatic Synod

I took copious and scrupulously accurate notes of the speeches and church political proceedings at that long-ago synod. From my aging notebook, I quote some of the comments that were publicly uttered in the course of the deliberations of that synod of 1960.

A few months earlier, at their regular synod, the schismatic “Protestant Reformed Churches” had decided that the three points of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 are not Pelagian and Arminian. They had also confessed their guilt over the years in charging the Christian Reformed Church with these sins. This decision really settled the issue whether they should return to the Christian Reformed Church, although residual resistance delayed the return for another year. Rev. J. Blankespoor was right when he argued, in favor of the return, “We have lost the basis of separate existence in denying the three points to be Arminian and Pelagian.”

Especially Rev. H. De Wolf repeatedly held this decision before the house as the reason why there should be no objection to returning to the Christian Reformed Church: “We have already said that the three points are neither Arminian nor Pelagian.” “Besides,” De Wolf added, “If we do not return to the Christian Reformed Church, we will simply disintegrate.”

Elder Vandenberg replied: “For thirty years we have been taught the corruption of the three points and have taught our children these things. Now we are to unite with the Christian Reformed Church without repenting from our former stand or remarking on what we said before.”

Arguing for a speedy return, Rev. A. Cammenga described his denomination: “a little pee-wee church as we are.”

Elder Vandenberg responded: “Is the question of my religion the question of whether we will be a small or a large group?”

Rev. J. De Jong, ardent advocate of dissolving into the Christian Reformed Church, had a way at the synod of bluntly expressing the reality of synod’s miserable situation, which the other ministers tactfully or fearfully skirted. In his heavy Dutch brogue, De Jong announced, “Ja, Misterr Chairrman, I am a great friend of compromise.” Later, he declared, “Ja, Misterr Chairrman, there is no middle ground between the Hoeksema group (sic!) and the Christian Reformed Church.”

Proposing an odd ground for ecumenicity, Rev. J. Blankespoor pleaded for joining the Christian Reformed Church in order to work with likeminded “conservatives” in that denomination “to solve problems of corruption in the Christian Reformed Church.” This strange ground for returning indicated how the “conservatives” in the Christian Reformed Church were wooing the separated “Protestant Reformed Churches.” History has shown that the Spirit of genuine church unity was not overly impressed with this ground for union.

Rev. B. Kok was aggressive: “We sin against God and the Holy Spirit if we now do not join the Christian Reformed Church.” Against an elder who had called the synod to honor the truth [of particular grace] in its debate and decision, Rev. Kok responded, “Unity is the truth too.”

Rev. A. Petter, who had vigorously defended a conditional covenant during the controversy in the Protestant Reformed Churches leading up to the split of 1953, was adamantly opposed to returning to the Christian Reformed Church under the condition that he recognize the three points of common grace as biblical and confessional. “The three points of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924,” he insisted, “are not Scriptural and confessional.” He added: “I will not stand by and let the Christian Reformed Church condemn Hoeksema, Danhof, and Ophoff again.” Then he put a question to his colleagues who yearned to return to the Christian Reformed Church at once, “Can’t our eager brothers show us, who have conscientious objection to the three points, some of the love they reveal to the Christian Reformed Church, by waiting for awhile?”

Petter weakened his case by many prodigiously long quotations from Reformed theologians on common grace. He noticeably wearied the synod, most of whom had no interest in the doctrinal issue.

In a characteristic comment, a mournful Rev. P. Vis lamented, “Years ago we were united on common grace, now even we, small as we are, are divided.” A year later, at the synod of 1961, as the discussion moved inexorably towards the decision to return to the Christian Reformed Church, Rev. Vis would cry out, “Now I have to choose. The situation has arisen which I feared. I can neither vote for nor against this motion [to return to the Christian Reformed Church, acknowledging that the three points of common grace of 1924 are not Arminian and Pelagian and promising not to “agitate” against them]. I don’t want to say that the three points are not contrary to Scripture. Nor do I care to say that the three points are contrary to Scripture. I don’t want to carry on as a little group nor do I care to buck my conscience. I’m in a rough spot.”

Rev. W. Hofman remarked, “Our association with the Christian Reformed Church in schools, institutions of mercy, and the like [over the past seven years] reveals to us that there is an essential unity between us.” He added the warning that “ever since 1953 we as a church have been breaking down.”

Rev. L. Doezema renounced the reformation of 1924 root and branch: “We should not have broken fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church because of the binding three points of 1924.” Later in the debate, Rev. Doezema expressed the extent to which the theology of the “well-meant offer” had already developed in his thinking. Rev. Petter had raised the doctrinal issue of common grace. Petter had stated, “I and Rev. J. Howerzyl believe in one grace only; we cannot believe in two graces.” Rev. Kok had responded, “I believe in conditions in the covenant and an offer of the gospel.” Rev. Doezema then announced, “I believe in one grace—saving grace that is common to all humanity.”

Rev. E. Knott, president of the synod, spoke against the motion to return to the Christian Reformed Church. “If I ever became a minister of the Christian Reformed Church [under the stipulations laid down by the Christian Reformed Church], I would never dare say another thing about common grace. Our entire historical position is essentially refuted by our entrance into the Christian Reformed Church under the present stipulations.”

Exactly so! And the next year his denomination joined the Christian Reformed Church under these stipulations, himself included.

That the return to the Christian Reformed Church would shut the mouths of the returning preachers regarding criticism of the three points of common grace, and that the preachers understood this, came out in a sharp exchange between Rev. De Wolf and Rev. Howerzyl. The motion to return had already failed, much to Rev. De Wolf’s disappointment. To Rev. Howerzyl, who had voted against the motion to return at that time, De Wolf put the question, “Do you actually intend to speak out [in the Christian Reformed Church] that you believe one grace and one grace only” [that is, that Howerzyl denied common grace]? Howerzyl replied, “Yes.” De Wolf shot back: “You better not explicitly say such things in the Christian Reformed Church.”

It was an especially poignant, and tense, moment when an elder in the consistory of the First Church of Rev. De Wolf, Van Tuinen by name, addressed the body (the synod had taken a decision allowing all elders in the denomination to speak, regardless that they were not delegates to synod). “Why are we in such a terrible situation? The preachers have been leading us in the way of the Christian Reformed Church. I would prefer to go back to 1953, when we left the Protestant Reformed Churches.” Under pressure, the elder corrected himself: “when we left Rev. Hoeksema.” He continued: “Then we said that we would be the continuation of the Protestant Reformed Churches. History has shown that they [the ministers in Van Tuinen’s denomination] have set aside these arrangements and expected us [the people] to follow. We will not. I want to go back to 1953 when we left Rev. Hoeksema.”

This same elder would speak out again at a session of the synod of the schismatic “Protestant Reformed Churches” in 1961, when those churches did decide to return to the Christian Reformed Church. Before a large audience of visitors, Van Tuinen exclaimed, in obvious distress, that “within six months of our leaving the Protestant Reformed Churches Rev. De Wolf was urging our young people to go back to the Christian Reformed Church. We elders had to reprimand him for this.” This time when the president of the synod interrupted him to require that he substitute “the churches of Hoeksema” for his “the Protestant Reformed Churches,” Van Tuinen defiantly repeated, “the Protestant Reformed Churches.”

Decisions of a Schismatic Synod

When the motion to return to the Christian Reformed Church failed, the synod adopted a letter to the Christian Reformed Church asking that the three points of common grace be set aside as non-binding. Of all the foolish decisions ever taken by a Reformed synod, this one has to rank as among the silliest. In actuality, though not expressly, it was asking the Christian Reformed Church to repent of the grievous sin of adopting false doctrine and of the equally grievous sin of excommunicating and deposing faithful officebearers and people of God. It expected the Christian Reformed Church to go back on the theology of common grace, which has driven that Church doctrinally and practically ever since 1924. It really politely requested the Christian Reformed Church to confess its wrongdoing to Herman Hoeksema and the true Protestant Reformed Churches, if not to seek reunion with these Churches under stipulations laid down by the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The letter was foolish also because the schismatic “Protestant Reformed Churches” had to return to the Christian Reformed Church, regardless of the demands upon them by the Christian Reformed Church, and everyone knew it. The only alternative was returning to the Protestant Reformed Churches, and to a man the ministers of the schismatic churches opposed this. But in the meantime, as speaker after speaker at the synod of October, 1960 reminded each other, their denomination was “falling apart” and “dying.” The always blunt Rev. De Jong exposed the foolishness of the letter to the Christian Reformed Church that the synod was in the process of adopting. “Ja, Misterr Chairrman, [we are saying to the Christian Reformed Church], ‘Please remove the three points, but if you don’t we will come across anyhow.’”

The Christian Reformed Church must have shaken its collective head in wonderment when it received the letter.

Needless to say, the Christian Reformed Church declined the request to set aside the three point of common grace as non-binding.

The Sad End of the Schism

The synod of the schismatic “Protestant Reformed Churches” met again in July, 1961, to consider the motion once again that had failed in October, 1960: return to the Christian Reformed Church. This time things went more smoothly. There was still resistance, especially from elders. A few ministers, with no heart for returning to the Christian Reformed Church, hopelessly bewailed their dilemma. All were forced to acknowledge that returning under the stipulations laid down by the Christian Reformed Church meant accepting the three points of common grace as biblical and Reformed, although in the finest political style of the Christian Reformed Church the judgment was couched negatively: not un-Reformed; not Pelagian and Arminian. All were reminded that joining the Christian Reformed Church meant that there would be no criticism of the three points of common grace.

On Thursday, July 13, 1961, at 2:36 in the afternoon, by a vote of eleven to five in a secret ballot, the synod decided to return to the Christian Reformed Church.

Thus was concluded for the schismatic churches a wicked piece of work. And thus was exposed the wickedness of their division of true churches of Christ before the world.

God meant it for good.

The Protestant Reformed Churches were tried as by fire concerning their love of the truth of the gospel of sovereign grace. They were purified especially of ministers whose hearts were not with the Protestant Reformed Churches in the unity of the love of the truth. And the doctrinal controversy, at the heart of the schism, established the Protestant Reformed Churches in the truth of sovereign grace with regard to the covenant. This doctrine is fundamental to the gospel. It is at the heart of the decisions of Dordt. It is thrust to the forefront today in all the reputedly conservative Reformed churches by the heresy of the Federal [Covenant] Vision.

Silent about the Schism

But my interest in this series of articles is Herman Hoeksema, as I knew him.

Within seven or eight short years after the split that climaxed six or seven years of violent controversy in the Protestant Reformed Churches, Hoeksema was vindicated. During the controversy, his name was blackened, his motives were impugned, his life’s work was attacked, the congregations he had labored long and hard to build up were torn or destroyed, his own congregation was decimated, and he lost family and friends. Of particular, painful injury was the constant charge by the enemies that the issue was not doctrinal, but merely “personal” (the implication being always his evil person).

In the hasty, ignominious departure into the Christian Reformed Church of those who had separated from the Protestant Reformed Churches, the God of church history expressed a preliminary judgment on the schism of 1953.

One might have expected a long series of editorials in the Standard Bearer setting straight the record of the past thirteen or fourteen years. There was nothing of the sort. Two editorials on “Fast Disintegration” followed the abortive synod of October, 1960. One editorial on “A Sad End” (theStandard Bearer 37, no. 20 [Sept. 1, 1961]: 460, 461) informed the readers of the Standard Bearer of, well, the sad end of the schismatic churches.

And during the three years of my seminary training, right at the time of his vindication, Hoeksema was almost completely silent about the great schism of 1953.

I think a great man of God was confident that, in time of crisis, he had fought a good fight on behalf of the truth and on behalf of the church of Christ. God had rendered His own resounding judgment on the schism in the history of the two denominations. The Protestant Reformed Churches had been preserved (though barely as it seemed to us). The clear, uncompromising testimony to particular, sovereign grace and to the antithesis was still maintained in the community of Reformed churches.

Do not dwell on the past, whether with bitterness, grief, or nostalgia. Press on to the things that lie ahead.

The spirit of a great man.