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Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 8: The Synod of 1924

Editor’s Note: The churches had won a great victory with the deposition of Prof. Janssen. Rev. Hoeksema had played a leading role in this victory. But in doing so he had gained some powerful enemies. In this next chapter, Rev. Hanko describes how these enemies set out to ruin the young and brilliant minister.

Now that he had been suspended from his office as professor of theology at Calvin Seminary, Prof. Janssen and his supporters turned and attacked their chief opponent, Rev. Hoeksema, on his denial of common grace. Although Rev. Hoeksema had publicly written about this subject back in 1918, at that time not a single voice of objection was raised. But now his enemies told him that he should first remove the beam (his denial of common grace) from his own eye before he sought the sliver (Prof. Janssen’s higher critical views of Scripture) in his brother’s eye. The result was that various brochures were written by his opponents and in turn answered by him and by Rev. Henry Danhof, who was known to agree with him in his denial of common grace.1

Across from the parsonage on Eastern Avenue were two stores. The one was a hardware store where ardent defenders of their pastor met, discussing the ecclesiastical problems of the day. Next door was a shoe shop owned by Wobko Hoeksema, where he entertained his brother, Rev. Gerrit Hoeksema and other opponents of Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

In the early part of 1924 there arose out of these meetings in the shoe store a protest against Eastern Avenue’s pastor, signed by three members of the congregation, including Wobko Hoeksema. When this protest appeared at the consistory the protestants were asked whether they had talked to their pastor personally about their disagreement. When they responded that they had not, they were told to do so. Rev. Hoeksema offered to meet with each protestant separately but only one accepted the invitation. It soon became evident that he did not even understand the contents of his own protest. When therefore their protest was rejected by the consistory they still proceeded to bring it to the May meeting of Classis Grand Rapids East.

In this protest they accused their pastor of committing a public sin by his denial of the theory of common grace. This charge of heresy was a serious accusation presented without proof. Therefore, the consistory demanded that they either prove their charges on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions or retract them. Since they refused to do either, they were placed under censure. Against this censure they also protested at the classis.

Although it was not according to good order to treat a matter that was not finished at the level of the local consistory, the classis nevertheless entered into the contents of the protest of these three members. At this classis meeting there were also other protests against Rev. H. Hoeksema, one from Rev. M. M. Schans and one from Rev. J. K. Van Baalen. In the discussion Rev. Schans remarked that Rev. Hoeksem had a different view of providence than the rest of them maintained. Rev. Vander Mey, a member of the Eastern Avenue CRC, also spoke against his pastor, accusing him of having a different God from the rest of them.2 Although the classis was shocked at this statement, there was more truth to this than they realized.

As an aside, I might mention that Rev. Vander Mey no longer served in his office as minister, but had become a collector of money for Calvin College, particularly in the midwest. He had stopped at the home of the great, great grandmother of Prof. Barry Gritters and sizing up her books in the bookcase remarked, “Mother, I don’t see one single book of Dr. Abraham Kuyper here.” Now Mrs. Gritters was a staunch defender of the Secession of 1834, so her reaction was, “That name is not mentioned in this house. Get out of here.” When Rev. Hoeksema first came to Eastern Avenue, Rev. Vander Mey sent him a card, saying, “Of all your sermons the last one I heard crowns them all.” But not long after he also joined the opposition against his pastor.

The meeting of synod was scheduled for the latter part of June and early July. These protests were hastily sent to this gathering. A lengthy debate was held at synod on the subject of common grace. It became quite evident, as one delegate later admitted, that most of the delegates failed to understand the issue at hand, but simply assumed that common grace had always been an accepted doctrine of the churches.

Rev. Henry Danhof was a delegate and availed himself of the opportunity to defend his convictions. On one occasion he remarked that he considered himself to be a spiritual son of Prof. Ten Hoor. This professor, who was also present, responded, “I never knew that I had given birth to any spiritual sons.” Rev. Hoeksema was refused the right to speak, because he was not a delegate. Since this issue deeply involved him, he felt that he should have the right to defend his stand. Finally he was allowed one evening, in which he might state his convictions. He spoke for about two hours, and from that time on was forbidden to speak.

At this synod, the well-known Three Points of Common Grace were formulated and adopted. Briefly summarized, these state that God has a favorable attitude toward all men, revealed in the preaching which proclaims that God loves all who hear the gospel and earnestly desires their salvation; that God, by the working of the Spirit restrains sin in the hearts of wicked men; and that the wicked are able to perform civic good.

But the synod also did not fail to add that the Reverends Danhof and Hoeksema were basically reformed in their teachings with a tendency toward one-sidedness. Nor did the synod demand that the censure be lifted from the three protestants of the Eastern Avenue congregation, who had accused their minister of public sin. They also expressed that a more thorough study of the matter of common grace should be made. Finally, they issued a testimony in which they warned the churches that a wrong and one-sided presentation of the theory of common grace could lead to worldly-mindedness.

If, when traveling on the freeway one deliberately turns off on a wrong exit because it looks so appealing to him, the result will be that unless he back-tracks, he will find himself going farther and farther from the right road. Little did the delegates of Synod realize how far this pernicious doctrine would lead the church astray, not only into worldly-mindedness, but also into rank Pelagianism and Arminianism, as well as into Liberalism and Modernism. They would one day lose their Reformed heritage completely.

This assembly had made a significant and ecclesiastically destructive decision by adopting the Three Points of Common Grace. All that had been gained by condemning the views of Prof. Janssen, which were based on the common grace theory, was lost by this unhappy decision.

Before taking up the events that followed upon the decision of the 1924 Synod, I wish to make a few brief remarks about the Three Points. The first point states: “Touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, Synod declares…that besides the saving grace of God shown only to the elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor of God which He shows to His Creatures in general.” That is misleading to say the least. No one denies that God is good to all His creation or handiwork, as we read in Psalm 145:9 , but this Psalm also adds: “But all the wicked will he destroy (vs. 20).”

As innocuous as this theory might seem to be, it is a significant world and life view which determines our conception of God, of the antithesis, of our attitude toward the world round about us, and even much more.

It was also maintained that common grace has nothing in common with special grace. Yet the first point speaks of “a general offer of the gospel.” From this eventually followed a denial of all five points of Calvinism, a general love of God for all mankind with an eagerness on His part to save all.

The second point speaks of “the restraint of sin in the life of the individual and off society in general…” This does not refer to an outward restraint whereby God in His providence upholds and governs all things, but refers rather to an inner restraint which checks sin in the heart of the reprobate so that he is no longer totally depraved. This also opens the way for the third point that speaks of the good that sinners do.

The third point teaches that “the unregenerate though incapable of doing any spiritual good are able to perform civil good.” This is very flattering view of the world in general, but also appeals to our sinful flesh. We like to think that this world and we ourselves are not so bad after all. But read Romans 3:9-18 . Many evils, such as questioning the infallibility of the Scriptures have followed out of the heresy of the third point.

At the conclusion of each point synod writes, “That our Reformed fathers from of old maintained this view.” That is not true. The fathers did indeed speak of “common grace,” but, as Wilhelmus a Brakel3 points out, common grace was generally understood to mean nothing more than that God gives good gifts such as rain and sunshine to the elect and reprobate alike.

As to the general, well-meant offer of salvation on the part of God to all mankind, Wilhelmus a Brakel states that this would be a contradiction in God, for God cannot will to save only the elect and also will to save all men. Moreover he points out that this must necessarily be a denial of total depravity, and a denial of particular atonement (“Redelijke Godsdienst” or “Reasonable Service,” pp. 180-183).

* * * * *

The summer of 1924 found me, as in previous summers painting houses with my dad and brother. Although we were somewhat shocked by the fact that the synod made common grace an official doctrine of the church by adopting the Three Points, we were comforted in the fact that the Reverends Hoeksema and Danhof were declared to be fundamentally reformed, even though tending toward one-sidedness. We thought the matter would be brought to rest by these decisions.

Footnotes

1 At this point, the author quotes pp. 14-16 of The Protestant Reformed Churches in America by Herman Hoeksema, 1947. We will not include them here, but will let the reader look up this passage.

2 The author refers to the fact that the god of common grace is a “different God” from the God of sovereign and particular grace.

3 Wilhelmus a Brakel was a 17th century Dutch theologian.