In our last article, we gave to our readers a quote from one of Rev. Ophoff’s Standard Bearer articles in which he began his attack upon the conditional theology which was being taught in out circles and which led to the schism of 1953.
It is not our purpose to enter into the entire controversy which brought our Churches to such grief in the early part of the Fifties. Our purpose is rather to demonstrate the role which Rev. Ophoff played in the entire controversy. And even in this, we do not want to go into all the details, but merely to show that his role was a major one.
There were several areas in which Rev. Ophoff was active. In the first place, during part of the time in which First Church was embroiled in the controversy-especially in the heretical statements which were made by Rev. De Wolf from the pulpit of First Church-Rev. Ophoff was a member of the Consistory. He had served on the Consistory from time to time while he was professor in the Seminary and a member of First Church. And God providentially put him in the Consistory also during some of these critical years. While in the Consistory, while protests were pending against the teachings of Rev. De Wolf (Rev. Ophoff himself was one of the first to protest these teachings), he fought long and hard for a Consistorial condemnation of these views. His work in the Consistory is little remembered except by those who served with him; but that work was carried on consistently in his unfailing efforts to rid the Church of views which he was convinced were contrary to Scripture and the Confessions.
He was also a prolific writer in the Standard Bearer. One need only glance through the pages of the Standard Bearers of those years to discover that many of the pages were filled with his writings. There is one interesting story of those years and those writings which is worth telling here.
Prior to 1953 and the time of the split, two ministers from our denomination made a trip to the Netherlands. Our readers will recall that this was the time in which many immigrants from the Liberated Churches (those who had followed Dr. Schilder) were settling in Canada and considering whether or not to become a part of our denomination. In fact, there were two Churches of immigrants established in Canada as a part of the Protestant Reformed Churches: the congregations of Hamilton and Chatham. The big question was: Could these Liberated immigrants keep their own covenant views and still be part of our denomination? When the two ministers from our Churches visited in the Netherlands, they had opportunity to talk with leaders from the Liberated Churches. In the course of these talks these ministers told the Liberated leaders that the whole question of the covenant was an open question within our Churches, that the covenant conception which was developed by Rev. Hoeksema was not binding upon all our people, and that there was therefore plenty room for the Liberated views too—although these views were quite different from the views to which our Churches had given expression.
On the testimony of these two ministers, the leaders in the Netherlands advised the immigrants to join the Protestant Reformed Churches on the grounds that these immigrants would not have to be bound in any sense to the views of the covenant maintained in our circles. And many did this.
On a classical appointment to Canada, Rev. Ophoff was given one of these letters by an immigrant. It immediately became clear to him that the two ministers from our Churches had done our Churches a very great disservice and had badly misrepresented our Churches. The issue was, after all, not whether the covenant views of Rev. Hoeksema were binding in our Churches, but whether the covenant views of the Liberated were contrary to the Confessions. The views of one man, after all, can never be, in themselves, binding upon all the Churches. But Rev. Hoeksema’s development of the ideas of the covenant was the development of the Confessional statements on the covenant, while the views of the covenant developed among the Liberated was contrary to the Confessions.
At any rate, Rev. Ophoff returned to this country deeply troubled and angry that two of our ministers should have to evilly misrepresented the views of our Churches. He resolved to publish this letter in the Standard Bearer and expose this evil. But before he did this, he asked the advice of Rev. Hoeksema who was at this time vacationing at Black Lake. Rev. Hoeksema advised against the publication of the letter; and this same advice was given by others. There were very few if any who thought the letter ought to be published. Nevertheless, Rev. Ophoff, contrary to all this advice, published it anyway. You can imagine the storm which this created within the Churches. It brought into the open the misrepresentation of two of our ministers. It brought into the open the whole discussion of what, after all, was binding in our Churches. And it put the Churches of immigrants in Canada on the spot.
I recall these things vividly because I was working at the time for the Doom Printing Company which published the Standard Bearer. The print shop became a beehive of activity. Many people were running in and out trying to get a preview of new issues of the Standard Bearer and trying to find out what each new issue would contain even before it was printed. We even had Christian Reformed ministers coming in who, though they would not themselves subscribe to the Standard Bearer, wanted to read it in the print shop.
Looking back on the whole event, it seems to me that the publication of the letter from the Netherlands to the immigrants was a necessary thing. It showed clearly that there were ministers within our circles who were willing to compromise the truth which we had confessed for the sake of getting immigrants into our denomination. It brought the whole matter of the controversy into the open where it could be discussed on the ecclesiastical assemblies, and where is could be determined what the Confessions had to say on all these matters. It was one of the more important events in the history of the controversy which led to a reaffirmation of the truth which we confessed.
Rev. Ophoff was also active on the broader ecclesiastical assemblies. He attended the classical meetings and the synodical meetings where the issues were discussed; and his participation in the discussion showed clearly that he had the issues clearly before his mind and would give not an inch in the defense of the faith.
The views of the Liberated and those within our circles who supported them were eventually condemned. Those who supported these views eventually left the denomination and returned to the Christian Reformed Church.
Throughout the controversy Rev. Ophoff showed again the characteristics which he had shown throughout his ministry. And it might be well to make a few concluding remarks about them.
In the first place, Rev. Ophoff, both in his writings and his public statements on the floor of ecclesiastical assemblies showed again that tact was not one of his strong points. Rev. Ophoff would never have succeeded in the circles of international diplomacy. He always said what he thought, boldly, forthrightly, without equivocation, and utterly without tact. He had always been this way, and it was not surprising that he should continue to be this way in his later years. This “tactlessness” often got him into trouble, and his writings and remarks were often an offense to many.
Nevertheless, one ought to put this into proper perspective.
We live in a time when the opposite extreme characterizes ecclesiastical discussions. Tact has become synonymous with evasion, duplicity, camouflage and tolerance of heresy. It is difficult to find men today in the ecclesiastical world who are willing to express clearly and forthrightly what they believe and who are willing to call sin, sin. In efforts to be tactful, and attempts not to hurt others’ feelings, the truth is lost and heresy is tolerated. Rev. Ophoff was not made in this mold. Perhaps his tactlessness can be criticized, but one is reminded more of the prophets in Israel when one hears and reads Rev. Ophoff, for there was a certain inability on his part to say anything but what had to be said, clearly and without compromise.
This was the kind of man needed in the Church at that time. Without it, the truth would never have survived, humanly speaking.
In the second place, in all his writings and speeches, Rev. Ophoff never attacked a man’s person. He was always interested in ideas, views, doctrines, heresies. He would attack these with vigor and force, but he would never stoop to level a personal attack against a man. This was proper and good. Personalities with him counted nothing. What did count was truth and integrity. And where this was lacking, his attacks were fierce and unrelenting.
In the third place, he showed, also in 1953, his deep love for the truth of the Scriptures and for the cause of the truth in our denomination. This was really all that counted as far as he was concerned. Whatever the cost to him personally and whatever the outcome might be for the Churches, he was determined that the truth had to be maintained. He loved the Protestant Reformed Churches with a passionate love because he loved the truth for which they stood. He said too that to pursue his attack against conditional theology would bring distress, suffering and eventually a split. But the price was not too high to pay. The truth was above all else and had to be defended. And to this he once again committed his life.
Finally, this was not only true in the Churches, but also in his own family. He was determined that his wife and children also clearly understood all the issues involved and saw that the whole question of the truth of Scripture was at stake. His sons speak to this day of the fact that he would repeatedly talk to them about the issues, and would insist that they clearly understood them, saw the wrong of conditional theology, and were prepared to stand with him in the defense of the truth. It was not an intellectual matter only with him, but a deeply spiritual struggle, and his family had to go through that struggle with him—and with the Churches.
And so, God gave the victory. And He used Rev. Ophoff (and all the others who fought so valiantly for this cause) to preserve the truth for themselves and generations yet unborn.