It is a necessary part of the life of the saints to know their history. Scripture is quite insistent on that point, not just because Scripture wants God’s people to know a lot of historical data—a lot of dates and events; but because history records the works of God, and it is important to know God’s works.
When the Holy Spirit in the book of Judges wants to explain why the nation of Israel constantly went after idols and turned away from God, we are told that “there arose another generation….which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). The works that the Lord had done for Israel were all a part of Israel’s history. When the nation no longer knew these works, they no longer knew the Lord. Apostasy came with a generation which no longer knew her God because she no longer knew her history.
That principle remains true throughout all time. The history of the church is the history of the mighty works of the Lord which He does for His people. When we confess, in the Lord’s Day XXI, Q. & A. 54, that the Son of God “gathers, defends and preserves unto himself a church,” we are told that the gathering, defense and preservation of the church is the work of the Son of God. The history of the church in the new dispensation as well as in the old is the history of God’s works for Israel.
It has been said that the nation which knows not the mistakes of history is doomed to repeat them. Something like this is true of the church. The church which knows not the mistakes of the history of the church is also doomed to repeat them. But the great truths of the gathering and defense of the church throughout time are the arsenal of the saints in which are the weapons for her spiritual warfare.
What is true of the church at large, is true of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. We, too, have a history, and it is important for us to know that history. It is not perverse boasting to say that our history, too, is evidence of “the works which the Lord has done for Israel.” If we are to be faithful to our heritage and maintain our cause, this can only be if we know our history. Locked up in our history is the heritage of the truth which God has entrusted to us. Faithfulness to our heritage requires knowledge of our history.
If I would ask almost any member of our Protestant Reformed Churches: What was the main event in our history? The answer would undoubtedly be: The common grace controversy in the Christian Reformed Church which resulted in the formation of our own denomination. This answer is, of course, correct.
But the common grace controversy did not drop into the church out of the skies. Another controversy in the Christian Reformed Church really put the subject of common grace on the agenda of the church and forced the church to take a long, hard look at it. This controversy is called, “The Janssen Controversy.” It is an important part of our history.
And it is an important part of our history for more than one reason. The struggle over common grace had its beginnings in the Janssen controversy. That is surely one reason, for common grace played a major role in the history of the beginning of our own churches.
But strikingly, Rev. Hoeksema, the spiritual father of our denomination, was, outside of Dr. Janssen himself, the most important figure in the controversy. He was the leader of the forces that fought against Janssen and that succeeded in persuading the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church to depose Dr. Janssen from office.
However, this is really not yet the whole story. The Janssen controversy, along with the struggle in 1924, really determined the future of the Christian Reformed Church—as well as the future of our own churches.
Why was this true?
It was true because the Janssen controversy dealt with questions that the Christian Reformed Church is still dealing with today. And, at the very heart of all these questions was the doctrine of Scripture. Janssen was deposed from office because he denied the truth of Scripture’s infallible inspiration. And this is at the heart of all the problems which the Christian Reformed Church faces today.
The interesting part of all this is that Dr. Janssen, in support of his views of Scripture, appealed to the doctrine of Scripture, appealed to the doctrine of common grace. He insisted that common grace gave him the right to believe what he did about Scripture; that, in fact, to deny what he taught was to deny common grace itself. He charged his detractors repeatedly with being the ones who had strayed from the paths of orthodoxy, while he was the one faithful to historic Calvinistic Reformed thought.
The trouble was that as often as Dr. Janssen brought up the subject of common grace in defense of his position, so often did his accusers refuse to discuss it. The committee which was appointed to investigate the whole matter of Janssen’s teachings refused to go into the subject of common grace even though Janssen repeatedly insisted that that was the part of his defense. But the Synod of 1922, which finally condemned Janssen, also refused to go into common grace and condemned Janssen without ever saying anything about the subject. This was strange. Yet there were reasons for it, and we shall have to look at some of the reasons in future articles.
What is significant is that, no more than Janssen was deposed; a bitter fight broke out over the whole question of common grace, a fight which finally led to the deposition of Rev. H. Hoeksema and Rev. G. M. Ophoff, and the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Rev. Hoeksema, who was a member of the committee to investigate Janssen’s teachings, later regretted that the committee had refused to treat the subject of common grace. In The History of the Protestant Reformed Churches, which Rev. Hoeksema authored, he wrote: “In the light of subsequent history it was evidently a mistake on the part of the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, that they co-operated with the four professors in the Janssen controversy, rather than to oppose his views separately and from their own standpoint….”
He was referring here to common grace and expresses the wish that he and Rev. H. Danhof would have simply entered into the whole common grace question when Janssen brought it up.
But this was not to be. History was, under God’s providential guidance, to be different from this.
To help us, therefore, understand the whole common grace controversy and, in this way, to help us understand the beginning of our own churches, I have been asked by the Beacon Lights staff to prepare this series of articles. It is my hope and prayer that it will help our young people, not only to know and understand our history, but to appreciate more fully our own Protestant Reformed heritage.
As many of our readers know, this material was first prepared in the form of a formal thesis. That thesis is available from our Seminary. Here, for the purposes of making the thesis more understandable and, I hope, more enjoyable to our young people, I am re-writing most of it.