Further Correspondence

Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Very shortly after hearing from Dr. DeJong of the Clarion magazine (which letter appeared in the April 1 issue of the SB), there appeared a letter in the Christian Renewal reflecting on the same matters, namely, the problems between the Protestant Reformed and Liberated Churches. And accordingly my answer reflected on much of the same material we considered in recent articles; but my feeling is that it warrants reprinting.

Many times through the years efforts have been made to make the Declaration of Principles appear to have been something novel and new and a kind of travesty of Reformed church polity which justified the Liberated in breaking off all contact with us. In fact it was nothing more than what had been there all the time, and of which they had been told repeatedly, a simple affirmation that we did not accept the theory of common grace either in the form of the Three Points of common grace, or of the Heynsian theory of the covenant to which they held. It would seem that, with the adopting of the Declaration, they finally realized we meant it, and that, without a thoroughgoing discussion in which they proved that what we believed was contrary to Scripture, we were not about to change. And, not being able or willing to provide that, they began to look upon the Declaration as something they could blame, and they have continued to do so through the years. 

In any case, the letter which appeared read as follows:

The Liberated, and the PRs

Having read Rev. Wouden-berg's letter concerning the Liberated view of the Covenant and the breakdown of the relationship between the Protestant Reformed Churches and the Liberated Churches (CR. Oct. 23, 1995), I'd like to make a few remarks. 

We are led to believe that the breakdown was caused by the "discovery" that Prof. Holwerda was privately advising the immigrants to ignore Hoeksema's covenant views and work their own views into the PR Churches. This is an interesting "discovery" it seems to me, for we learn that this discovery led not only to the breakdown of our relationship, but more seriously to a "major disruption within the PR churches." 

Leaving alone what this may imply concerning the late Rev. Holwerda, it seems that history is rewritten here. For as a rule relationships between churches depend not on "discoveries," but on what is agreed on or disagreed on, and is so stated publicly. And what has been open and publicly documented? The adoption and subsequent binding of the "Declaration of Principles" has been the cause of the breakdown between us, as well as the disruption within the PR Churches. We do well to give proper attention as to what we agree or disagree on, and we should not rely upon so-called "discoveries."

What Rev. Woudenberg writes further in his article, others have responded to sufficiently. I only have one question for him. At the conclusion of his Oct. 23 letter he writes: "Within the sphere of the covenant, as without, the means of grace have their dividing effect." What do we make of this? Are we to believe that believers and unbelievers are both in the "sphere of the Covenant"? And what exactly is meant by the "sphere of the covenant"? I cannot find such a construction in Scripture. What I do find in God's Word is that God sent Jesus Christ in order that everyone who believes should not perish but have eternal life.

Hermon Bosscher

Everson, WA

To this I replied as follows: 

Dear Mr. VanDyk,

In your February 12 issue of Christian Renewal there appeared a letter from Mr. Hermon Bosscher addressing two questions to me, which, if I may, I would like to try to answer.

To begin with, however, if I have it right, Mr. Bosscher may well have been one of the Liberated friends with whom I used to stop and visit back in my Lynden, Washington days, as I tried to gain a grasp of what had gone wrong between the Protestant Reformed and Liberated churches, and what our real differences were. If so, I certainly would like to give him my greetings again, and thank him once more for those many cups of coffee and good discussions we had. 

In any case, he addresses basically two matters.

First of all, he questions the "discovery" of the letter of Prof. Holwerda, which I don't think was a "discovery" either, since anyone familiar with that history would know the part it played. But, to fill it all in, let me try to summarize this history as briefly as I can. 

We should recognize, as a starter, that the PRC originated — as most know — out of the CRC when we were put out because Hoeksema and his followers denied that common grace is in accord with Scripture. This doctrinal position became in effect the first formative decision of our churches, and thus, according to Article 31 of the Church Order, "settled and binding" among us, as are all properly made ecclesiastical decisions. In fact, without such a unifying commitment of one kind or another there can be no real denomination. (What this means, in effect, is that anyone joining a PR church is not to go about propagating common grace within our churches without first having proved decisively through proper ecclesiastical channels that what we maintain — and thus the right of our existence — is contrary to the Word of God. And should he do so, of course, we should all go, hat in hand, back to the church from which we came.) 

As it was, the PRC contact with the Liberated had its roots in the visit of Dr. Klaas Schilder to America in 1939, during which he met and made friends with Herman Hoeksema, with the result that all through the war the PRC people were kept posted on every bit of news that came through about Dr. Schilder, including his being deposed because of his covenant view. For him our people held great sympathy, even though his covenant view was essentially that of the CRC professor, W. Heyns, whose views lay at the roots of the Three Points of 1924. When, therefore, Dr. Schilder was heard to have repudiated common grace, Hoeksema was perplexed and invited him here again to discuss these things with us, which he did in the fall of 1947. 

Shortly before this visit took place, however, Hoeksema was incapacitated by a massive stroke, and was able to take only a small part in the visit, during which Dr. Schilder toured nearly all of our churches and met all of our pastors. At the end, therefore, he expressed two striking conclusions: first, that the Liberated covenant view was not the same as that of Heyns: and secondly, that the Liberated view of the covenant differed essentially from ours only in terminology and emphasis. Thus he assured us that he would work toward establishing a sister-church relationship between our denominations, and would direct those emigrating from Holland to join our churches when they arrived here. By some, including Hoeksema, these first two points anyway were received with a good deal of polite skepticism, but generally we agreed to go along with him, and particularly to work with any immigrants that came to us, which we did. 

It was less than a year after this, however, that a letter was received from a Liberated pastor to the effect that he was opposed to these moves, because he — and according to him all of the Liberated clergy — were committed to the Heynsian covenant view; to which Hoeksema replied that, if any immigrants were really determined to follow Heyns, they would do better to join the CRC where there was plenty of room for that view. In turn, when during the following winter a group of immigrants with whom we were working in Chatham asked to organize as a PRC while maintaining the Liberated (or Heynsian) view of the covenant, they were told that was impossible since it would be contrary to the principles upon which our churches were founded. 

We were quite amazed, therefore, as were they, when a few months later this same group received that letter from Prof. B. Holwerda in which he said that they had met with two of our pastors who were visiting in the Netherlands (both of whom had been on the committee which had denied Chatham's request) and had been told by them that Hoeksema's view of election was his own and not that of the PRC, and that, not only was there room for the Liberated covenant view in our churches, but many of our pastors were inclined to that view themselves. Accordingly Holwerda's advice was that (while, if Hoeksema's view were "binding" in our churches, he would advise them never to join us) on the basis of what these men had said, the Liberated churches could work with us — by which he evidently meant, not Hoeksema, but those who were sympathetic to the Liberated view. And on that basis the immigrants should join the PR churches and work at getting Liberated material into them. The result of this was, as one might expect, confusion. Had these two men actually said in Holland the opposite of what they shortly before had insisted upon with these Chatham people, or was Holwerda misrepresenting them, or was there actually a group of men in the PRC planning, in complete disregard of the church order, to reverse the original commitment of the PRC? — the latter of which it would seem history has shown to be closest to the truth.

And then came another blow. Prof. C. Veenhof published a brochure, Appél!, which was so full of common grace that it was an embarrassment even to those PRC men most inclined to the Liberated churches. 

The result of this all was that at that point all real cooperation between our churches ended, or to use Schilder's figure, de kous was af. Wherever our men went they were met by the question as to whether the PRC had an established covenant view or not; and, whatever answer was given, it was not believed. In turn, by the following spring (prior to the drawing up of the Declaration of Principles) Rev. Hettinga was going about among the immigrants (including those who belonged to our churches) seeking to organize them into separate Liberated congregations, which, within the context of the Liberated view of the church, could only be a de facto affirmation that the PRC was no longer seen to be the true church in this country. 

It is true, of course, that, once the Declaration was written, the Liberated pounced on it as some kind of a wonderful justification for breaking their contact with the PRC, even though it said nothing other than had always been true, and of which they had been reminded often. Neither was it of real practical relevance, for profitable interaction between us had ceased, and maybe had never really begun. Its real significance was to be found in our own churches as it served to bring out those who through this all had become dissatisfied, and using this also as an occasion left us, not to go to the Liberated, but back into the CRC which once they "out of conviction" had left. 

It was a sad history; and one wonders at times whether it could not have been done better, but fears even more whether under similar circumstance we would have the conviction or discretion to do as well as then.

And, concerning Mr. Boss-cher's next problem, we can be brief. He objects to our use of the word "sphere" regarding the covenant because it is not found in the Bible; and that is OK. Still, the fact is that there are those who are baptized and those who are not; and the question remains as to what baptism meant to those who are. At that point we must be careful to heed Paul's reminder, especially in Romans and Galatians, that no one should presume that, just because he has received the sign of the covenant (whether circumcision or baptism), he is thereby a child of Abraham and an heir of the covenant blessings. The sign does not bring grace to each one who receives it, but rather points all to the gospel truth that only, Galatians 3:9, "they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham." And, being Reformed, we cannot but remember that such faith does not come from an individual himself, but is wrought by God (Canons III,IV:10-12). 

But enough. I only wish that I could stop and talk these things through over a good cup of coffee; but for the time being this must suffice.