Tag Archives: Abraham Kuyper

The Liberation of 1944

This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of 1944.  If you have no idea what that is, you’re in good company.  I remember hearing about it for the first time in my Christian school and my thoughts went right away to the Canadian soldiers liberating the Netherlands during the Second World War.  It’s at the same time, but this is a totally different event, something from church history.

The story begins in the early 1800s.  The Reformed Church in the Netherlands was in a bad way.  Scripture-denying theological liberalism was in the ascendancy.  God brought about a Reformation known as the Secession of 1834.  Later, in 1886, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper and others, another Reformation happened.  This was called the Doleantie, literally, “the Grieving.”  In 1892, the Secession and Doleantie churches were united together in one federation.  This happened through the herculean efforts of influential figures like Herman Bavinck (from the Secession churches) and Abraham Kuyper (from the Doleantie churches).

United, but…   

By 1921 both Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper were gone.  The Union of 1892 was something that lay almost 30 years in the past.  In those thirty years, there had been tensions.  It took time for Secession and Doleantie churches to learn to live with one another.  That took place on a local level.  Many Dutch towns and villages had both a Secession church and a Doleantie church.  Now they were both in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The old Secession church was known as the ‘A’ church, and the Doleantie church would be known as the ‘B’ church.  In some places eventually they merged into one congregation, but in other places they continued their separate existence.

Yet deeper problems existed.  The question of Abraham Kuyper’s theology continued.  He had some peculiar beliefs, especially about baptism.  He believed in presumptive regeneration.  Kuyper argued that we baptize on the presumption that the child being baptized is born again or regenerate.  If it turns out later that the child is not regenerate, then it wasn’t a real baptism.  There were other doctrinal concerns as well, but it’s especially the doctrine of baptism and the covenant that becomes a matter of controversy later on.

In 1905, a Synod was held in Utrecht.  This synod was asked to deal with the theology of Kuyper.  It did this by means of what has come to be known as the Conclusions of Utrecht.  It’s also sometimes called “the Pacification Formula” because it was meant to pacify the churches.  It was meant to lay all the concerns to rest about what could and could not be taught in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  On the point of baptism, they came up with a compromise statement.  It mildly rejected some of Kuyper’s formulations, while allowing for others.  So Utrecht said that children “must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine.”[1]  However, Utrecht also said that it is “less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God.”[2]

Three Streams in the RCN

So Kuyper and his followers were gently chastened by this synod.  Nevertheless, this chastening had little lasting effect.  Kuyper’s followers became increasingly insistent about his formulations as time went on.  They formed one stream in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands as we get into the 1920s and 1930s.

There was another stream, however.  This stream originated with an organization known as the Dutch Christian Student Union.  This was a broad organization that involved people from all kinds of different backgrounds.  It started off with the Apostles’ Creed as its doctrinal basis, but this was soon abandoned.  A statement of purpose was developed which mentioned the Trinity and this also was deemed too restrictive.  Soon this organization settled on this purpose:  “to introduce and build up the Christian life and worldview, which is grounded in the Bible and which, linking up with the historical development of Christianity, takes account of the needs and demands of the present time.”[3]  Seminary students from both the Free University and the seminary in Kampen were involved with this organization; some were even leaders.  Even ministers and seminary professors were involved.  This was an organization that included the same kind of liberal thinking that had earlier led to the Secession and the Doleantie.  It seemed that some people had forgotten their church history or just didn’t care.  In 1920 in Leeuwarden, at the synod of the Reformed Churches, a warning was issued against membership in the Dutch Christian Student Union.  However, it was just a warning.  It didn’t really have any teeth.  It didn’t stop further developments.

One of the developments out of this stream was the Geelkerken case.  In a catechism sermon Rev. J. G. Geelkerken stated that it’s possible that there was no literal snake speaking in the Garden of Eden.  The case ended up at the Synod of Assen in 1926.  The Synod decided against Geelkerken; his views could not be tolerated in the Reformed Churches.  However, they went further:  they suspended and deposed him.  His views were wrong and unbiblical.  But this synod did something that contravened the agreed-upon church order.  Only a local church can suspend and depose ministers and other office bearers.  Still, Synod Assen went ahead and usurped the rights of the local church.  This set a bad precedent for years to come.

As we come into the 1930s, a third stream was developing in the Reformed churches.  These were mostly younger ministers who rejected the Dutch Christian Student Union, but also found that some of Kuyper’s views didn’t stand up to biblical and confessional scrutiny.  Among these ministers was Klaas Schilder.  Schilder began critiquing some of Kuyper’s views and this caused controversy.  Kuyper’s devotees accused this Reformational stream of deviating from the Reformed faith.

The Unravelling

That brings us to a series of key Synods at which weighty decisions were made.

The first one is Synod Amsterdam 1936.  This synod received a communication from a classis about the doctrinal disputes regarding Kuyper’s views.  It wasn’t clear what the classis was asking or proposing.  The synod decided to appoint a study committee made up of people from both sides.  However, after the synod was over and the committee got to work, it quickly became evident that there were deep problems.  One of the people in the committee (Prof. Valentine Hepp) started throwing around accusations with no proof.  This behaviour drove out three of the eight other committee members, the three who were on the side of those concerned about Kuyper’s theology.  The result, of course, would be an imbalanced report to the next synod.  However, those concerned members also wrote their own report.

The next synod was Sneek 1939.  It is usually referred to as Sneek/Utrecht and this synod actually ended up lasting until 1942.  This was the synod that would deal with the doctrinal differences.  The political situation comes into play here.  It was tense.  When the synod opened, it was the eve of the Second World War.  In 1940, the synod was still on and the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  It was a time of national crisis.  Proposals were made to the synod to postpone dealing with the doctrinal disputes until there was more stability in national life in the Netherlands.  Despite such pleas, the synod plowed forward.  The majority report from the study committee was received – it made accusations that some ministers and professors, including Klaas Schilder, were deviating from Scripture and the Confessions.  The synod continued through 1940 and 1941, periodically meeting.  At the end of 1941, a decision was made to move the synod to Utrecht and reconvene there in May of 1942.  The following month a decision was made regarding the doctrinal differences.  The Kuyperian stream had scored a victory.  The views of Schilder and others were declared out of bounds.

The next synod was the following year.  Notice how synods here follow one upon the other.  The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands had become top heavy with synodical hierarchy.  Synod Utrecht 1943 received proposals and submissions requesting a reconsideration of the decision of the previous year.  However, these were all rejected.  This synod also maintained the position of the previous one:  Schilder and others would have to fall in line or face the consequences.  Synod Utrecht 1943 continued into 1944.  When it became evident that Schilder would not surrender and fall in line, the Synod first suspended him and then later deposed him.  They did the same with many other office bearers.  According to the Reformed Church Order, this was an illegal action.  Only local consistories could suspend and depose office bearers.  A synod again usurped this authority.  It was another classic example of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

On August 11, 1944 a meeting was held at the Lutheran Church in The Hague.  It was supposed to be a meeting for all those concerned about the developments with regard to Schilder and others.  Hundreds of people showed up, despite the ongoing war (the Allies had only liberated the southern part of the Netherlands) and the challenges with regard to transportation.  At the meeting, after some speeches, Schilder read an “Act of Liberation or Return.”  This document was modelled partly on the Act of Secession from 1834.  With this Act in hand, people returned to their local churches and the Liberation (Vrijmaking) was underway.  Many people freed themselves from the synodical hierarchy.  Those who were liberated claimed to be the true continuation of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  They called themselves Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) or Reformed Churches maintaining article 31.  Article 31 refers to an article of our Church Order which states that decisions made by synods and classes shall be considered settled and binding unless they are proven to be in conflict with Scripture or the Church Order.  The Liberated believed that the doctrinal decisions of 1942 were in conflict with Scripture and the suspensions and depositions in 1944 were in conflict with the Church Order.

Reflections

The Liberation is a fairly recent part of our church history.  Shortly after the Liberation, post-War emigration brought many Liberated church members to both Canada and Australia.  They were the ones who started the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s a significant part of our heritage.

It’s sometimes said that the “past is the parent of the present.”  For example, if you want to know why our churches are so particular about our Church Order and its principles, you have to understand the Liberation of 1944.  If you want to know why the first Dutch immigrants to Canada and Australia didn’t join with other Reformed believers, it’s related to the Liberation.  If you want to know why there’s often antipathy towards Abraham Kuyper in the CanRC and FRCA, again it’s 1944.  Whether we’re aware of it or not, this event has profoundly shaped the character and culture of our churches.

My Opa Vanderland was a local leader in the Liberation in his church in Marum.  For him, as for many others, this event was deeply personal and any discussion of it would be emotionally charged.  He was scarred by the Liberation, as well as by the Nazi occupation happening at exactly the same time.  Then he immigrated to Canada.  That too was a life-changing experience with hardships we can hardly comprehend.  It’s easy to take a triumphalistic view of the Liberation.  It’s easy to view it simplistically as an act of God to liberate his people from ecclesiastical wickedness.  Yet, as time goes on, we need to also see the extensive personal pain and trouble involved.  We can start to see how an intense ecclesiastical conflict like this, however necessary, can shape individuals and churches, and not always in good ways.  We always have to remember our constant need for God’s grace, for the gospel, for our Saviour Jesus.  After all, a “Liberated” church is still far from a perfect church, both in the past and the present.

[1] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[2] Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.

[3] Van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle, 33.


Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.

 


Quotable Church History: “Not a square inch…”

This is the ninth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

The man behind today’s quote once also wrote this about Jesus Christ:  “He is not God to me, for my religious sense teaches me to know but one God.  To me he is a man and nothing but a man.”  Abraham Kuyper wrote those words to his fiancée Johanna Schaay in about 1860.  He was a doctoral student in theology, but clearly not yet a Christian in the biblical sense of the word.  That would come later — after his ordination to the ministry.  God would use a number of different means, including a spinster church member named Pietje Baltus, to bring Kuyper to true saving faith in Jesus Christ.  You can read more about all that here.

Eventually God used Kuyper in a powerful way to bring about a reformation in the Hervormde Kerk (the Dutch state church).  Kuyper was the leading figure in the Doleantie of 1886.  However, prior to that, he was also the driving force behind the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam.  He had a vision for a university free from the bonds of church and state.  It would be a Christian institution, certainly, but not beholden to the powers which had caused so much decline in the Dutch state universities of the era.  The Free University of Amsterdam opened its doors on October 20, 1880.  It had five professors and eight students.

Kuyper delivered the opening address.  Entitled “Sphere Sovereignty,” it encapsulated his vision for the university.  It laid out how the Free University was going to be different — holding to a Christian worldview ethos in which every aspect (sphere) falls under the sovereignty of God.  It was a masterpiece of Kuyperian rhetoric.  The famous quote comes towards the end of this address:  “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”  These are undoubtedly Kuyper’s most famous words — they’ve been quoted by Tim Keller, Chuck Colson, and numerous other luminaries.

Quoted as often as it is, is it true?  Colossians 1:17-18 speaks about Christ in the same way:

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

Christ is to be preeminent in everything because, as the Holy Spirit points out earlier in Colossians 1, Christ is the One through whom all things were created.  Everything belongs to him and he is sovereign over it all.  Jesus is Lord over all and Kuyper’s words powerfully expressed that biblical truth.  There’s a good reason why he’s called “Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).

Kuyper is sometimes regarded a villain in church history because of the role his views would play in later church controversies in the Netherlands.  However, on the point of Christ’s sovereignty over all human endeavours, we all ought to stand with “Father Abraham.”  It’s amazing to think that this man went from denying Christ’s divinity in 1860 to preaching Christ’s divine sovereign prerogatives in 1880.  In those 20 years, God not only transformed his heart and mind, but also the hearts and minds of countless other Reformed church members.  Since then, Kuyper’s words and the thoughts behind them have gone on to inspire many other Christians to take Christ’s claims seriously.  For that we should praise God’s sovereign grace, but also take those claims seriously ourselves in every area of life.


Quotable Church History: “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation…”

This is the eighth in a series on famous quotes from church history.  We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

By the late 1700s, the Reformed church in the Netherlands had largely become anemic.  Unbelief and liberal theology ran rampant.  There were few gospel preachers and only scattered handfuls of true believers.  Instead, what dominated was the type of religion emphasizing Jesus as the good example for a moral life.  Doctrine was  sidelined, along with the creeds and Reformed confessions.

This was the story in the tiny village church of Ulrum coming into the 1800s.  Ulrum is located in the north-west of the Dutch province of Groningen (one of the two most northern Dutch provinces).  In 1826, Ulrum received a new pastor in the person of Petrus Hofstede de Groot.  De Groot was the typical minister of his day.  In one place he summarized his belief:  “Christianity is no doctrine, it is power, spirit, and life, for the enlightenment, warming, sanctification, and perfection of man.”  His message was moral improvement.  While some delighted in the pablum he offered in his weekly preaching, others in Ulrum saw the sad reality.  Several Ulrum members refused to make a public profession of faith with de Groot as their minister.  Thankfully, de Groot’s ministry was short:  he left to teach at the University of Groningen in 1829, only three years after arriving in Ulrum.

De Groot handpicked his successor.  Hendrik de Cock was his good friend and a like-minded preacher.  He arrived in Ulrum in October 1829.  At first his preaching was much the same as de Groot.  However, he did make some changes.  For example, prior to his arrival, Ulrum consistory meetings were never convened or closed with prayer.  De Cock introduced prayer at the beginning of the first meeting of the year and prayer at the end of the last meeting of the year.  It was a small step.  Nevertheless, despite being a minister and quite religious, de Cock was really no different than de Groot at this time:  both were missing the gospel, and both were lacking in true faith.

One of the members who had refused to make profession of his faith with de Groot was a working-class brother by the name of Klaas Pieters Kuypenga.  In due time, de Cock urged Kuypenga to come by the Ulrum manse for an hour a week to receive further instruction.  Kuypenga agreed.  But what happened was remarkable.  Kuypenga became one of God’s instruments to bring de Cock to true faith in Jesus Christ.  During one of their sessions, Kuypenga remarked to his pastor:  “If I had to add a single sigh to my salvation, I would be eternally lost.”  This language stunned de Cock and it put the proverbial stone in his shoe — he couldn’t stop thinking about what this meant.  In due time, God would providentially bring other factors into play so that de Cock would become a Christian and start preaching like one.  De Cock would go on to challenge the liberalism of the Dutch Reformed Church and be instrumental in a reformation known as the Secession (in Dutch: Afscheiding) of 1834.

One would think it rather obvious that Kuypenga spoke biblical truth to his pastor.  Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse…”  Adding anything from our works to Christ’s work would place us under a curse.  Or one could think of Isaiah 64:6 which insists that even our so-called righteous deeds are like unmentionables in the sight of God.  Furthermore, Romans 3:28 reminds us that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  We have nothing to contribute to our salvation except for the sin which made it necessary.  The moment you seek to add something to the perfect work of Christ, you are holding to a different gospel, a false gospel which will damn you.  Klaas Pieters Kuypenga had been trained by the Holy Spirit to speak his truth.

It wouldn’t be the last time God would use a regular church member as a powerful instrument to bring reformation.  He did something similar with Abraham Kuyper and a lady named Pietje Balthus.  Both Hendrik de Cock and Abrhaham Kuyper were exceptionally learned men, scholarly pastors — and yet God used these “little people” to turn their worlds upside down for the gospel.  These episodes in church history illustrate that 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 continues to hold true:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

 


New Kuyper Resources Added

One of the hats I wear finds me teaching church history again, this time to Grade 7-10 students at our John Calvin School here in Launceston.  Tomorrow they’re beginning a research project on Abraham Kuyper.  To assist them, and for anyone else interested, I’ve just added a couple of articles on Kuyper.  These two pieces were originally published in the November 2013 issue of Reformed Perspective:

Abraham Kuyper: Larger than Life

Kuyper’s Legacy: For Better and For Worse