After a regrettably long break, we finally have opportunity once again to return to our discussion of Henry Beets’s history of The Christian Reformed Church. To be honest, the first chapter of this work was probably the most difficult to include due to its historical focus and broad scope. As we consider Chapter 2 today, I look forward to unearthing some more interesting points for application and discussion.
In order to explain the denominational name “Christian Reformed,” Beets turns his attention to the more specific history of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. I’ll include a very high-level overview of each section of Chapter 2 to save space for the best quotes and thoughts.
Lutheranism was the first form of Protestantism to influence the Netherlands, followed by a wave of Anabaptism, and then Calvinism, “stronger and more lasting.”
One of the most significant heralds of the Reformed faith was Peter Dathenus (born 1531), who translated the Heidelberg Catechism and the Genevan Psalter into Dutch. Guido de Bres (1522-1567) was another “able minister of the New Testament” who composed the Belgic Confession and eventually “sealed his testimony with his own blood.” Under the reign of William of Orange, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands became the official church of the land.
However, the public acceptance of Calvinism soon proved to be a mixed blessing, for it is claimed that only one tenth of all Netherlanders were genuine Calvinists. “And among these enrolled as ‘Reformed’ not all were sound in doctrine, much less godly in life.” Beets says,
In the course of time civil authorities interfered time and again in the exercise of Christian discipline over the doctrine and life of professors, preachers, and prominent church members. Nor was the walk of thousands of the people above reproach. Conformity to the world began to make fearful inroads. The churches were crowded with nominal professors. Gradually unsound, unreformed voices were heard in cathedrals and pulpits.
As this unsoundness continued to eat away at the church, the National Synod of Dordrecht was convened in 1618-19. This historic international assembly arranged for the translation of the Bible, adopted the Canons containing the five points of Calvinism, prepared a Church Order, and revised and officially adopted the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession.
Here is one of Beets’s most insightful comments in the entirety of Chapter 2, though it may not have originated with him:
It has been observed that religious movements usually pass through four cycles: those of construction, of systematization, of corruption, and of restoration. We saw this worked out in our first chapter. It went that way in America as we shall see later. It also marked the course of events in the Netherlands, and the last two of the four cycles named account for the origin as well as the name of our denomination as we shall see presently.
In other words, Beets points out that the waxing and waning of the church is a normal phenomenon, though not a particularly desirable one. We’ll return to this point later as it concerns the United Reformed Churches in North America.
In 1816, King William I abolished the old form of church government and erected instead a “collegialistic body” subject to governmental authority. “In vain did the Classis of Amsterdam protest against this high-handed procedure—this Caesaropapism, a term expressive of the theory that the civil government has supreme authority over church affairs. The Classis was silenced and declared disbanded.”
Another grave change came via the Form of Subscription which pastors and elders had signed since the Synod of Dort. “The pastors were no longer to set their hand to it that they were to preach Reformed truth ‘because’ (quia) it was conformable to the Word of God, but ‘in so far as’ (quatenus) it agreed with it.…Very soon men arose who publicly denounced the Catechism, who pictured the old Forms of the Liturgy as ‘miserable,’ and who petitioned the king for a smashing of the ‘chains’ of Dordrecht.…Doctrinal corruption, the third cycle above referred to, reached its highwater mark, as other evils had done before, at the close of the Middle Ages.”
Here it ought to be noted that history repeats itself. Just last year, in 2012, the Christian Reformed Church replaced this same Form of Subscription with a “Covenant for Officebearers” which notably lacks a statement of Biblical inerrancy and contains provisos for church officers who disagree with the confessions.
However, as he has continued to do throughout history, the Lord preserved his Church through these trying times. “A new Reformation was about to re-form what had become so sadly deformed in the Netherlands.” Beets rattles off names like Bilderdijk, DaCosta, Count van Zuylen van Nyevelt, and Vijgeboom as forerunners of this “Further Reformation.” But he says “the real ‘Reformers’ whose stand was decisive and whose action bore lasting fruit, were the Revs. H. De Cock, Gezelle Meerburg, and the candidate A. C. Van Raalte.” These names will appear frequently as we progress through the history of the Christian Reformed Church.
As Hendrik De Cock, born in 1801, began to read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and some other writings of his Reformed predecessors, he was led to forsake the liberalistic views of his mother church and instead “to preach the Word in accordance with the Calvinistic Standards of the Church. He published various books in defense of the old, but almost forgotten, truths of the Reformed Confession.”
Beets is not entirely supportive of De Cock’s position, noting (pay attention, musical readers!) that he endorsed “a violent and unfair attack on the hymns of his Church” and transgressed certain rules and regulations, leading to his eventual censure and suspension. Until this time the Dutch Reformed churches had generally practiced exclusive psalmody, but a wave of doctrinally unsound hymns had swept across the denomination along with the other liberalizing trends. Perhaps De Cock overreacted, but it is clear that his sincere desire was simply to bring the Church back into conformity with Biblical doctrine and worship according to the Calvinistic tradition.
The result of De Cock’s deposition was that on October 13, 1834, “after prayer offered while all were on their knees,” this minister, his consistory, and most of his congregation signed an Act of Secession and Return to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of their forefathers.
The Act expressed a desire to unite with other bodies founded on the Word of God, wherever found, and stated the purpose to abide by the Word of God, the Standards of the Reformed Church, and the Church Order of [Dort]. De Cock’s purpose was not disruption, but reformation. He expressed it more than once: ‘We have not seceded from the true Reformed Church, nor from the true Reformed’; ‘we separate only from the synodical Church until it returns to the ways of the fathers which it has forsaken, and to the most holy faith which it has denied.’
Once again, the parallels between the Seceders’ split from the Dutch Reformed Church and the URCNA’s secession from the CRC are all too clear.
Beets lists some of the signatures of the document, pointing out that many of the family names have survived right up until the current day in our churches: Batema, Beerema, Berghuis, Blaak, Boerema, Bronkema, Danhof, Hommes, Hulshof, Japenga, Kamp, Klaassen, Kniphuizen, Koster, Kuipenga, Kuizema, Luinenga, Nienhuis, Poelman, Prins, Rillema, Rosema, Schur, Slotema, Telma, Tuinenga, Vander Borg, Van Zwol, Veltkamp, Veltman, Wierenga, Winters, Wouters, and Zaagman. This would make a fun project for the genealogically-minded!
The second leader of the Secession was Rev. H. P. Scholte. He and his followers “also signed an Act of Secession, and during the next decade he played a leading role, until estrangement between him and De Cock and others, on personal and doctrinal, and particularly church governmental questions, led to his suspension.” Other Secession leaders were Revs. A. Brummelkamp, A. C. Van Raalte, and S. Van Velzen.
Here Beets rather cumbersomely wraps up his summary of the Dutch Further Reformation. Basically, he says that the activity of these Secessionists brought about the organization of what became the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands, which would cross the Atlantic and give birth to the denomination of the same name in America. In conclusion, he says:
This is clear: the objectives of the Seceders, even though not always clearly expressed, were that the old Church might be rejuvenated and the impure purified, and a return to the standard set up by the Church of the Apostles. In other words, the sole aim was to restore and maintain the great marks of the Church of Christ: the sound preaching and teaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
Thoughts for Discussion
The most significant point of application I gained from this chapter was that our situation in the URCNA is far from unique. There have been splits, schisms, and secessions in the church since the very beginning. Even the apostle Paul explained to the believers in Corinth, in no uncertain terms, that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor. 11:19). This is not a new phenomenon but a normal, and dare I say, a necessary part of the history of the church. In fact, I believe we ought to be suspicious as soon as our churches begin to grow without bound in size and popularity. Woe to us when we are universally loved and accepted even by unbelievers! Rather, we ought to look for and strive after congregations, no matter how small or weak, that exhibit the marks of the true Church, as Beets has noted.
Although this realization ought to reassure us as we look back on our own complicated interactions with the Christian Reformed Church, it also ought to serve as a grave warning for us here in the United Reformed Churches in North America. Where construction and systematization are well under way, as Beets has related, the potential for corruption and deformation also lurks. I have no illusions that our federation will be immune to the same conflicts and troubles that plagued the Dutch Reformed Church, the Christian Reformed Church, or the true Church at any period in history. May we ever be on guard for the signs of this decay, and may God raise up faithful men, as he did in the past, to oppose it. Ultimately, however, regardless of our denominational status, we can rest in the comfort that Christ is the cornerstone of his Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!