Tag Archives: Canadian Reformed Churches

FRCA Synod 2021 (3)

Unfortunately, there’s not much to report by way of decisions as yet. Our synod has been doing a fair bit of committee work; some of that work has been brought on the floor and then sent back to the committees for “fine-tuning.” Last night we had several greetings from other churches: the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Kosin Presbyterian Church of Korea, and the Calvinist Reformed Churches of Indonesia. This afternoon we’ll be dealing with committee proposals again. This evening will feature greetings from the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa and the Reformed Churches of Indonesia — Timor. Time permitting we also hope to have some initial rounds of discussion yet today on the proposal to send observers to the International Conference of Reformed Churches, as well as on the report regarding contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Southern Presbyterian Church.

In case you’re interested, draft Acts of Synod are being published here.


The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members.  It describes the marks of the true and false church.  First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.”  What does this mean for mission?  What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?

Historical Background   

In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas.  To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857.  Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works.  It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts.  There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair.  Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission.  The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians.  In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.

The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later.  It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC.  Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.          

In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.”  The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'”  This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God.  Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church. 

However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC.  Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision.  He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision.  The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these:  If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…”  Boer built his case on the word “therein.”  He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word.  He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either.  While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct.  There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.

When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected.  The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition.  I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912.  But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone. 

Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29.  Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States.  Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren:  one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.

Biblical and Reformed = Missional

One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services.  This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us.  Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès.  In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places.  Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.  A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.

The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well.  Being Reformed meant being outward looking.  It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell.  It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy:  “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  And they did. 

But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors.  Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith.  The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554.  In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members.  They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours.  Compelled by love, they could not keep silent.  Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.

According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church.  The ghetto mentality is not Reformed.  When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture.  Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.


A Herald of Freedom in Christ

Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021.  Paperback, 226 pages. 

At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen.  His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier.  While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister).  My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton.  Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him.  My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.”  When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful.  Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.

So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread.  The book certainly doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor.  We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.”  There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either.  In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.

Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting.  Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944.  This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions.  During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:

A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130) 

Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.

Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta.  It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions.  This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it.  Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject.  Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).

For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion.  Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til.  There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187). 

If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read.  If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too.  But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta.  He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.    

Man of the First Hour can be ordered from the Publisher at this link.                 


Preview of FRCA Synod 2021

It’s another exciting synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This year’s synod is scheduled to be held starting on June 14 in Albany, Western Australia.  The reports for this synod are now publicly available here and I imagine other material will soon follow.  Let’s review some of the noteworthy items on the agenda for Synod Albany 2021 so far.  Since I’m delegated to this synod, I’m not going to be offering my views or opinions — what follows are just the facts, presented as objectively as possible.

Website

Synod 2018 mandated the Website Committee to design a new website for the FRCA.  This has been done and it just remains for Synod 2021 to give the green light.  In the meantime, you can find a preview of the new website at this link. 

Book of Praise

Our last synod also mandated the development of an Australian Book of Praise and, to that end, a Standing Committee for the Australian Book of Praise was appointed.  The Aussie church book is apparently at Premier Printing in Canada, but should be available by the time of Synod 2021.  It will officially be called Australian Book of Praise:  Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

Training for the Ministry

This is a significant report because these deputies were asked to develop a strategic long-term plan for an accredited Australian seminary.  The plan proposes to explore the possibility of an Australian affiliate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. There are many unanswered questions about this route, but the deputies are asking for a new mandate which will see them finding the answers. 

The report also proposes that deputies be mandated to develop guidelines for a vicariate system in the FRCA.  This would see seminary graduates who originated in the FRCA being given the opportunity to have a one-year internship/vicariate in a local FRC congregation with an experienced pastor.  The proposed model is based on the practice of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.

Ecumenical Relations

As happens at every synod, a lot of time is going to be spent on relationships with other churches.  Especially noteworthy at this synod will be a proposal from Classis North (originating from Launceston) to send observers to the next International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  The FRCA was part of the founding of the ICRC.  We left the ICRC in 1996, but this proposal suggests the time may be right to re-examine our involvement through a small step.

Within Australia, we have our Committee for Contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Southern Presbyterian Church.  This committee is recommending that the FRCA continue discussions with the EPC and SPC with a view to eventually establishing sister church relations.  While the marks of a true church are in evidence with both the EPC and SPC, there do remain outstanding issues to discuss with them.  The committee is also asking the synod to clarify the status of a “Declaration” that was made by Synod 1986 with regard to “true church.”  Was that a general doctrinal declaration and therefore a form of extra-confessional binding?  Or was it simply a limited declaration meant to serve the narrow purposes of a discussion at Synod 1986 about the Presbyterian Church in Eastern Australia?  The answer has implications for moving forward with the EPC and SPC.                   

Outside Australia our closest sister churches are the Canadian Reformed (CanRC).  Among other things, our deputies were mandated to monitor developments in relation to Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, Ontario.  In their report, the deputies noted that there were many efforts in the past three years to openly discuss and debate these developments within the CanRC.  They write that we need to respect the process of dealing with these things through the Canadian ecclesiastical assemblies.  Going forward, the deputies recommend that referring to a single church is not necessary or appropriate, because these developments are “part of a larger dynamic within the CanRC” (p.53). 

Geographically the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are some of our closest sister churches, especially if you’re in Tasmania.  Our deputies were mandated by the last synod to keep urging the RCNZ to be vigilant with regard to the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia.  In their 2021 report, the deputies maintain that there is no need to continue doing this, seeing how as the RCNZ already do this on their own.  If we continue to make that a point of discussion it communicates mistrust, according to the deputies’ report.

Finally, there are two North American churches with whom we’ve been exploring a relationship.  Our deputies recommend that contact be continued with the United Reformed Churches and that a recommendation be made to Synod 2024 about a sister church relationship.  With regard to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the deputies recommend not pursuing a sister church relationship at this time, not because of any issue with the OPC as such, but because of the practical difficulties involved.  They also invite recommendations from the churches about the merits of pursuing ecclesiastical contacts with the OPC outside the context of a sister church relationship.

Conclusion

There’ll be other items on the agenda.  In the weeks to come, FRCA consistories will be reviewing all these reports and the other proposals that have been submitted.  Undoubtedly, in due time, there will be letters from some of the churches interacting with some of this material.  This is good and fitting.  It shows that the churches care about what happens at our broadest assembly and they care about the direction of our federation.  I look forward to June!           


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.