The Janssen Case: Chapter 4 – The Basic Issue (2)

(In the last issue of Beacon Lights, we began a discussion of how common grace became an essential part of Dr. Janssen’s defense of his views of Scripture.  We discussed how important this whole issue of common grace was in the controversy, and we began to give some history of how common grace even appeared as an issue in the Christian Reformed Church.  We concluded with showing how Rev. Herman Hoeksema, even before the Janssen controversy, had begun to challenge and eventually deny common grace.  From that point we continue the discussion.)

Rev. Herman Hoeksema’s denial of common grace was well known in the Christian Reformed Church before the Janssen controversy even began.

But, although there was some discussion of the whole subject, gradually the dispute died out because the attention of the church was soon directed to other matters.

It was towards the end of 1919 that controversy began in the Seminary over the teachings of Prof. Janssen.

We have discussed this controversy earlier and will not repeat here what we already said.

When Hoeksema became involved in the controversy over Prof. Janssen’s teachings, he began also to write about Janssen’s views in his articles in The Banner.  To these articles Prof. Janssen responded.  In one issue of The Banner Janssen wrote:

“We can now sum up.  Our discovery brings us face to face with a very discouraging fact.  The unexpected has happened.  In Rev. H. Hoeksema we are after all not dealing with a critic who is a sound Calvinist.  In denying common grace he has broken with true Calvinism and has in so far joined ranks with Anabaptists.  He has been found to deny one of the most important doctrines of our Reformed faith.”

And so Prof. Janssen drew the battle lines.  He insisted that his views on Scripture were correct because common grace was an important part of the Reformed faith, and he held to his views of Scripture because of the doctrine of common grace.  To this doctrine Janssen returned again and again in all his writings.  In fact, so important did this doctrine become that it basically formed his only line of defense.  He used it as a two-edged sword, both to defend his own teachings and to brand his opponents, in their denial of common grace, as being out of step with the tradition of the Reformed faith, and particularly Calvinism.

There were those who claimed that this appeal to common grace was unjustified.  They argued (and Hoeksema at first agreed with this) that the doctrine of common grace was irrelevant to the discussion.  They argued that Janssen introduced the doctrine as a “red herring” to attempt to lead his opponents along a wrong trail.  They insisted that Janssen was only trying to obscure the real issues by an appeal to common grace in defense of his position.

And yet, when one reads Janssen’s writings, it becomes undeniably clear that this was not only Janssen’s last line of defense, but that it was his only defense.

And yet, the Study Committee which entered into Janssen’s teachings (one member of which was Rev. Hoeksema) and the Synod of 1922, which condemned Janssen, refused steadfastly to enter into this discussion.

Why was that?

It may very well be true that Janssen, while firmly believing that common grace indeed stood at the foundation of his position with respect to Scripture, nevertheless also saw that to introduce this issue of common grace was a strategic move which would help him in his defense.  This would presuppose that Janssen was aware of the fact that his opponents were not agreed on the question of common grace, that some favored it and that some opposed it.  He, if this was his tactic, hoped to divide the opposition and, in this way, relieve the pressure which was being brought to bear on him.

That there was division cannot be denied. Revs. Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof were on the committee.  Everyone knew that both strongly opposed common grace.  Janssen himself suggested the strong possibility that Samuel Volbeda, a professor in Calvin Seminary who was pressing for Janssen’s condemnation, agreed with Hoeksema and repudiated common grace.  Janssen also stated that he did not know where the other professors stood on the question of common grace for their statements were, in Janssen’s opinion, ambiguous.  But he also knew that at least some of the members of the study committee were strong proponents of common grace.  The conclusion, then, which Janssen came to and which he exploited in his defense was this:  If I can get the committee and the professors involved in the subject of common grace, the result will be that they become so entangled in their disagreements and in their debate over common grace, they will have no unity among themselves to condemn me and my teachings.

It seems clear that the study committee sensed the truth of this.  And so, in the interests of offering advice to the Theological School Committee and the Synod, they put this issue of common grace aside and refused to enter into it.  It was, in their minds, more important to agree on Janssen’s higher critical views of Scripture than it was to become embroiled over the question of common grace.  And so they refused to enter that part of the discussion, and the result was that the Synod of 1922, which condemned Janssen, did not enter into this aspect of the controversy either.

The result was that the committee apparently thought it possible to consider Janssen’s views on Scripture apart from common grace.  This was possible because Janssen’s views could be considered only on the basis of the teaching of the Confessions regarding the doctrine of Scripture.  It is also true that to discuss common grace would have been a diversion which could have endangered the case against Janssen.  If the churches had become involved in a lengthy discussion of common grace, this would have so dominated the controversy that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Janssen’s opponents to present a united front in their attack on Janssen.  Common grace would have torn the ranks of Janssen’s critics and made any condemnation of Janssen’s views impossible.

We all know, of course, that when common grace did become an issue after the Janssen controversy, that all the professors in the Seminary plus all the members of the study committee joined in condemning Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof for their denial of common grace.  At the Synod of 1924 where the three points were drawn up and adopted Hoeksema stood alone.  Everyone who had formerly been at his side when Janssen was condemned now abandoned him and became his accusers.

Rev. Hoeksema later regretted that the committee did not deal with common grace right from the start.  In an important pamphlet written after the common grace controversy (entitled:  Not Anabaptist But Reformed) Hoeksema and Danhof agreed that not only was common grace always really the issue, but that if common grace were not repudiated, Janssen’s views would once again prevail in the church.  In this they were prophetic.

Latter still, Hoeksema became even more convinced that the matter of common grace should have been dealt with immediately.  In The Standard Bearer he wrote that many said:  “There would never have been a Danhof-Hoeksema case in our churches (The Christian Reformed Church) if there had been no Janssen case.

Hoeksema claimed that the historical relation was clear.  He wrote that in 1918-1919 he wrote against common grace and no one opposed what he said, and, in fact, he was reappointed editor of “Our Doctrine” in The Banner.  Only when he criticized the 1920 decision of Synod on the Janssen question did the issue of common grace and Hoeksema’s denial of it come up.  Further, Hoeksema pointed out that all those who protested his teachings on common grace were really Janssen supporters.  And this led him to wonder whether the relation between the Janssen case and the common grace controversy was doctrinal or personal.

Still later he wrote:

“The fact that the four professors and others of the opponents of Doctor Janssen could unite with the pro-Janssen faction in their action against the three ministers that were deposed in 1924-1925, plainly reveals that, apart from superficial differences, there was fundamental agreement in principle.  There was in the Janssen controversy an underlying principle which, had it not been violently and intentionally forced into the background, would have paralyzed every effort of the four professors to combat Doctor Janssen’ views and would have aligned them from the beginning with the pro-Janssen faction against the Reverends H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema.”

Nevertheless, we may be thankful that the discussion over common grace was postponed until Janssen’s views were adjudicated and condemned.  But it remained a striking fact that the issue of common grace would not die; that it was resurrected shortly after the Janssen controversy was settled; and that the men who brought it up were themselves Janssen’s supporters.  That Hoeksema took the lead in the condemnation of Janssen; that Janssen’s supporters were mainly instrumental in forcing the issue in the churches, resulting in the expulsion of Hoeksema; that those who sided with Hoeksema in opposing Janssen later became his accusers and condemners, these are some of the ironies of history.