The CRC and Rev. Herman Hoeksema: An Apology 75 Years Too Late?

The agenda of Synod 2001 includes an item that could easily be overlooked though it is potentially one of the more emotionally-charged issues the CRC has faced in the last seventy-five years. Overture 1 (Agenda, p. 305) from Classis Grand Rapids East notes that 1999 was the 75th anniversary of the “common grace” conflict leading to the departure of Rev. Herman Hoeksema and formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The overture requests synod to instruct its standing Interchurch Relations Committee to start a process of healing history’s wounds by actively pursuing better relations with the Protestant Reformed Church.

There are undoubtedly many members of the CRC who are not familiar with this history or may judge it to be low on the list of the CRC’s priorities. I believe this issue is one of the more important matters synod has to consider this summer. I readily acknowledge that this is hardly an unbiased judgment since I am personally responsible for getting the ball rolling on this proposal. My involvement began with research for an editorial I was to write for a commemorative issue of the Calvin Theological Journal on the common grace issue. The research became increasingly fascinating for me and culminated in two full-length essays that appeared in the April 2000 and November 2000 issues of CTJ. In this article I shall briefly spell out my reasons for asking my church’s council, classis, and synod to support the proposal for the CRC to reconsider its relationship to the PRC. For those who desire a more complete explanation I recommend my extended discussion of this matter in the two essays indicated earlier in this paragraph.

What happened in 1924? Rev. Herman Hoeksema, minister of Eastern Avenue CRC, Grand Rapids, Michigan, publicly renounced the doctrine of common grace which had played such a significant role in the Dutch neo-Calvinist revival led by Abraham Kuyper. According to Hoeksema, God’s grace does not extend to the reprobate and therefore the expression “common grace” misleads Reformed Christians and softens their resolve not to live sinful worldly lives. Since Rev. Hoeksema and his collaborator, Rev. Henry Danhof, had an extensive track record of publications that elaborated their position, the doctrine of common grace became a matter of serious debate and conflict in the CRC during the early 1920s. Church papers were filled with the debate and a pamphlet war was furiously waged between supporters and deniers of the doctrine.

When the 1924 CRC Synod met in Kalamazoo, starting on June 18, it had before it four overtures that called for a synodical study committee “to make a thorough study of the matter and enlighten the churches” (Agenda for Synod 1924, xxvi–xxviii). This would have been a wise thing to do indeed especially considering the counsel synod received from its own advisory committee:

“That synod make no declaration at present concerning the standpoint of the church regarding the doctrine of common grace and also of its ramifications. Such a declaration would assume that this matter had been thought through and had been developed in all its particulars, which certainly is not the case. This necessary prior study is entirely lacking. As a result there is no communis opinio in the Reformed churches on this matter.” (Acta 1924, p. 134).

Thus, in its 24th Session, Thursday evening, July 3, 1924, synod was discussing just such a motion to appoint a study committee in which all viewpoints were to be represented. The committee was to be instructed by Synod to work in a “spirit of brotherly love and genuine appreciation of each other’s viewpoints” (Acta 1924, 143–44). However, time ran out on this discussion and synod adjourned until Monday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m. 

Alas, the proposal to appoint a study committee was defeated. Over the Sabbath weekend, Hoeksema’s opponents had apparently prepared a lengthy substitute motion (6 pages in the Acta), including the three points on Common Grace to which Hoeksema and Danhof objected. Synod approved all parts of this extended statement in one evening session (July 7) paving the way for a church judicatory body such as Classis Grand Rapids East to discipline Hoeksema for not acceding to a synodical statement. There was not doubt that this would be the outcome since Hoeksema and Danhof had stated their intentions publicly.

With that at stake, synod still acted quickly in coming to its decision. This decision to go forward with a declaration on an issue about which synod itself had said that there was no consensus, is doubly tragic. In addition to the haste with which synod disposed of the matter, it made the disputed three points a matter of future possible ecclesiastical discipline. This eventual action, however, contradicted the relative clean bill of doctrinal health given to Hoeksema and Danhof by synod on their basic Reformed stance. At worst, so said synod, they were tolerably one-sided:

“Synod itself declared that though there are certain expressions in the writings of the Revs. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema which do not harmonize well with . . . Scripture and the confession . . . [on the three points] nonetheless synod declares that the above-mentioned ministers . . . have no intent or desire other than to teach the Reformed teaching . . . and to defend it. Also, it cannot be denied that, in the basic truths of the Reformed faith as set forth in our confessions, they are Reformed, albeit with a tendency to be one-sided.” (Acta 1924, 147).

On the point of one-sidedness, synod observed that the respective tendencies toward either a one-sided objective or subjective preaching had always been present in the Reformed tradition. With respect to the allegations of an “exclusively objective exposition of misery, deliverance and gratitude” on the part of Hoeksema, synod noted that “this phenomenon is nothing new in Reformed circles and has always been tolerated” (Acta 1924, 123)

With the advantage of a 75-year historical perspective we can’t help wondering, why? Why the haste to come to a definite conclusion in two weeks on such a contentious matter and with full knowledge that the decision would most likely lead to conflict, discipline, and division? While it is impossible for historians to determine exact and absolutely decisive reasons, we do get some clues from the flurry of protests and appeals sent to Synod 1924 aimed at Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof and their “unReformed” teaching on common grace. When we see the quantity, the similarity, and the linkage of important leaders in the CRC reflected by these submissions, it is fair to conclude that there was significant concerted and determined opposition at work.

What is also troubling is the frequency with which CRC assemblies violated good and due process even when staying technically within the rules. Many of the protests and appeals had been rushed through classical gatherings at the last minute (in the case of Classis Grand Rapids West, June 10, 1924, eight days before Synod was to meet), failed to meet the deadline for the synodical agenda, and represented unfinished work at the lesser assemblies. In most of the cases synod had just cause to reject the submission as not legally before the assembly. While an assembly such as synod can declare as legally before it whatever it wishes, accepting the volume of protests and appeals against Hoeksema and Danhof was both prejudicial and, in my judgement, imprudent.

The story of the events post-synod, leading finally to Rev. Hoeksema’s forced departure along with others, needs to be told another time. What I have tried to summarize in this brief article is an argument that the 1924 decision on common grace was hasty and in many respects irregular. Though it is rather lengthy I shall reproduce here the eloquent protest of Rev. Daniel Zwier, the first clerk of the 1924 Synod. I do so in the hope that it will lend credence to the conclusions I have made on the basis of historical research. Rev. Zwier was there. He agreed with the three points, yet thought that synod had made a serious mistake.

The undersigned protests against the decision of synod in declaring itself at this early time re the contested points which are related to the doctrine of common grace, namely, the favorable disposition of God to mankind in general, the restraint of sin and the so-called doing of civil good.

This protest is not directed against the content of these synodical declarations, with which the undersigned is in total agreement. Rather this protest is directed against the fact that synod took this action at this time in making these declarations, an action which the undersigned is convinced was both unnecessary and hasty.

Grounds:

1. The doctrine of common grace, according to this judgment, has not been sufficiently thought through, and the dispute which has arisen in our churches concerning the above-mentioned three points, which are connected to it, have not come to a sufficient ripeness to warrant an enticement for a decision through which, in principle, the standpoint of brothers Danhof and Hoeksema stands condemned.

2. The points, with which it is concerned, do not belong to the fundamental truths which are formulated in our confessions, and as synod itself has acknowledged, in these fundamental truths the brothers Danhof and Hoeksema are Reformed, even though there is a tendency to be one-sided.

3. Thus these too hastily made declarations, according to the conviction of the undersigned, will not be conducive to advance the peace and well-being of our churches. Experience has taught us that undue haste in such weighty matters, when emotions run high because of the battle being waged, are seldom good.

4. There was according to the judgment of the undersigned a better way, namely, that a committee be appointed to investigate the dispute which has arisen, and that the truths be further studied, which have become a point of controversy. However, synod was not willing to move in this direction.

D. Zwier

After wrestling for some time with this matter, I came to the conclusion that we, the Christian Reformed Church, owe our brothers and sisters in the Protestant Reformed Churches an apology. I requested the council of my church, the Plymouth Heights CRC of Grand Rapids to forward an overture via Classis Grand Rapids East to the CRC Synod 2001. The overture asked synod to adopt the following resolution:

“The Christian Reformed Synod 2001, recognizing that 1999-2000 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1924 Synod’s affirmation of the three points on common grace and the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches as a principled protest against this synodical decision, declares the following:

‘Synod expresses profound sorrow and regret to our brothers and sisters in the Protestant Reformed Churches for the actions of CRC assemblies in 1924 that led to the forced departure from the CRC of Revs. Herman Hoeksema, Henry Danhof, G.M. Ophoff and the majorities of their councils. Synod acknowledges that many of the actions were hasty, did not always follow due and just process, and forced objectors to submit to a synodical declaration on which synod itself had observed that there was no common opinion and that it was not essential to Reformed doctrine.’”

Classis Grand Rapids East, at its meeting on January 17, 2001, did not endorse the overture as submitted but instead sent the substitute overture referred to at the beginning of this essay. I was disappointed by this decision, particularly in view of the significant encouragement I received from members of the CRC and PRC alike in response to my earlier two Calvin Theological Journal articles. In addition, the symbolism of having such a strong overture come from the classis which deposed Hoeksema was, in my judgment, too good an opportunity to waste. I do, however, understand the reluctance of Classis Grand Rapids East to commit itself on short notice to such a major move and a more deliberate approach to this matter through the agency of the CRC’s Interchurch Relations Committee is an appropriate way of handling the concerns I have raised.

I have written this article because I believe that this issue should not be at the bottom of our list of ecumenical priorities. I do not expect nor even plead here for restoration of full ecclesiastical fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the PRC much as I hope and pray for it. However, with the CRC becoming serious about reconciliation in a broader arena (eg., racism) I believe that our church’s message of reconciliation to the world is hollow if we are unable to open ourselves to reconciliation with close church family members because we cannot acknowledge our own sins and faults. There is still an ecclesiastical Berlin Wall of hostility between the CRC and the PRC. Christ requires of us that we take down the bricks we put there to build the wall in the first place. Yes, seventy-five years is a long time, but if you think a few more years will make reconciliation easier, look at Belfast, Beirut, Bethlehem, or Bosnia. Too late? Better late than never. The time is now.

Dr. John Bolt

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