George Martin Ophoff: Humble Servant of the Truth (3)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Ophoff As Professor

Throughout his life in the ministry, the center and most important aspect of Ophoff's work was his labor as professor. I am compelled to look at this aspect of his work from my own perspective because it was in the seminary that I best knew him.

In the first year I attended seminary, the school was rather large, with students from our own churches, interested young men and college students who audited various courses, students from the Netherlands, and students from the Eureka Classis of the German Reformed Churches. After the controversy of 1953 the number of students was significantly reduced.

My first impression, formed already in those years, and one which continues to the present, is Ophoff's immense dedication to the cause, a dedication which became especially evident in his willingness to sacrifice almost all earthly goods and position for the sake of the truth. Such enormous dedication left an indelible mark.

My second impression was that our education was of the highest possible caliber. This was true even from an academic viewpoint. Ophoff, e.g., taught us our Hebrew grammar and reading. He taught it well and he taught it thoroughly. We learned our Hebrew under his instruction. We could not have learned it better anywhere else. We had to study and we had to study hard. The sleepless nights were many and the work was demanding. We had good courses.

But the education was especially good because it was taught throughout from the perspective of Scripture and the confessions. Ophoff had insights into things which were unique and powerful. In Old Testament studies he opened to us the history of Israel in a way which could not be learned from any book. He did not rely upon what others had said; he did not use the same old notes over and over, year after year. He was fresh, vigorous, new, insightful, and interesting. In Church History he showed us something I had never learned in all my college days: the fundamental spiritual difference between the Reformation and the Renaissance which created sharp antithesis between them. And this is but one example.

My third impression was that Ophoff was disorganized in much of his life. It must be remembered that the workload he carried was enormous and the obligations many and varied. It must be remembered too that Ophoff's absorption in a given subject at a given time made him so preoccupied that he was often oblivious to what was going on about him. Nevertheless, he was not a man who claimed organization as his strength. His study was to anyone entering it a disorganized place (although he seemed to know fairly well where everything was). His notes were disorganized so that no one else could possibly have used them. His instruction was disorganized, and the students used to joke that we stayed longer at Mt. Sinai than the children of Israel. We never covered all the material. The clock, governing the beginning and the end of class periods, did not exist for him. I am sure we would have had the same class all morning if we had not reminded him of the time. But we received from him insights which were principial; we learned viewpoints and methods of working that were distinctively Reformed; we were subjected to a man whose concentration on a given subject was at any moment total; and we could not help but be moved repeatedly by a spiritual dedication that stood above all else. If later in life we had to continue our studies in subjects we only began with him in seminary, we knew that we had been given the proper starting point and the way was carefully charted so that we would never get lost. And that, after all, is what counts.

The same characteristics appeared in his writings. He wrote syllabi for classroom use and wrote volumes for the Standard Bearer. But what was true of his teaching was equally true of his writing. I worked in my seminary years in the print shop which printed the Standard Bearer. Ophoff's material was always late. His typewriter always needed a new ribbon. His manuscript was so heavily edited by pencil or pen it was difficult to make out. Arrows directing one to all other parts of the manuscript, pieces chopped off or cut out of pages, pages renumbered, bits of paper glued on to other pages — all of these made setting his articles on the linotype a real challenge.

His writings were studded with startling insights into the text of Scripture and magnificent truths developed at length in stirring rhetoric. But the organization was uniformly poor and the writing impossibly long-winded and detailed.

His writings remain a treasured part of our heritage. But someone needs to take his best pieces and edit them by a rigorous shortening process. The Reformed churches could benefit tremendously from such work.

Ophoff, the Polemicist

Deep commitment to the truth of Scripture leads to warfare, for there are not many who love the faith with fire and passion. Ophoff fought for the Reformed faith.

He did that already in the years surrounding the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches. He wrote oftentimes in a polemical style, for he saw in so many writings by men who claimed to be Reformed froth and blather, talk without substance, higher critical attacks upon Scripture. Against all these he raged with vehemence.

But Ophoff led the fight in 1953 when conditional theology threatened to engulf the churches. He was the first to detect a different "spirit" in the churches than that which had characterized the PRC at its inception. When Dr. Klaas Schilder came to this country from the Netherlands, Ophoff saw what most did not see, that Schilder's covenant views were at odds with those views developed in our churches. Schilder promoted a bilateral and conditional covenant, and such teachings, Ophoff saw, were directly in conflict with the truths of particular and sovereign grace.

In fact, when Hoeksema urged Ophoff to be cautious and to withdraw charges against a minister (Hubert De Wolf) in First Church, Ophoff persisted in pressing the charges, and these charges eventually became the occasions for the minister's suspension from office. And when defenders within the PRC openly wrote with approval of a conditional covenant, Ophoff's defense of the Reformed faith was vigorous and unyielding.

At the same time, Ophoff never attacked someone's person. He wrote against false views, and he often did so in such controlled fury that his enemies were incensed. But it was heresy against which he wrote, not people. He was often a prophet whom few would hear.

Yet his work was extraordinarily important, for it was used by God, not only to defeat a calculated attempt to drive the PRC in a direction different from that in which it had gone, but also to develop truths which became the heart of the Reformed faith as taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Ophoff's Last Days

The valiant defense of the faith which led to the split in the PRC in 1953 was his last battle. It seemed as if God had preserved him for it, and that when the shouting and the tumult died and peace returned, Ophoff's work was over.

Already prior to the split in 1953, Ophoff for almost the first time entered the hospital for stomach surgery. Although the surgery was successful, the doctors warned him that he would have to lighten his work load. He never did. A lifetime of work had developed a habit which could not be broken.

In the summer of 1958, while Rev. and Mrs. Ophoff were returning from a vacation in Canada, Rev. Ophoff suffered a massive stroke in Toledo. He was moved by ambulance to Grand Rapids, but the stroke proved the end of his work. Although he recovered from some of the effects of it, he gradually lost his sight. While it was possible for him to think theology and understand the theology which others read to him, it was no longer possible for him to read or write it.

In February of 1962 Rev. & Mrs. Ophoff were moved to a nursing home. One week before he died, Rev. Ophoff was moved to Pine Rest. His death came on June 12, 1962, and a little more than two years later, his wife followed him to glory. It was a little more than three years before his colleague, Rev. Hoeksema, went to his eternal reward.

Conclusion

George Ophoff stood about five feet, nine inches tall and was rather well proportioned. Although he surely put on weight in his later years, he was never overly heavy. He had a natural dignity in his bearing, in the look on his face, and in his head of pure white hair. He was a handsome man, although he was completely oblivious to it. His eyes behind iron-rimmed glasses were sharp and penetrating. His head was massive and his chin had the set of a bulldog so that his whole appearance was one of tenacity and courage.

On the one hand, Ophoff could be surprisingly indifferent to his appearance and he often came to school looking rumpled and dishevelled — most often because he had been in his study all night. His wife had a difficult time of it keeping him presentable. But he could also be startlingly concerned about his clothing. If we would comment that the tie he wore did not go well with his suit, he would never wear the combination again. And his wife took great pains to attempt to keep him in clean, neatly ironed shirts and suits.

An outstanding feature of his life was his meekness. We often thought of Moses when we thought of Ophoff. Of Moses it is said in sacred Scripture that he was the meekest man on the earth. Ophoff came in, we thought, a close second. His meekness was expressed in his total dedication to the glory of God not only, but in his willingness, all his life, to labor with his considerable gifts in the shadow of Herman Hoeksema — and to do so without a word of complaint or a tinge of jealousy. He never received the recognition which was due him, and his considerable gifts often went unnoticed. But the deeds of a man are noted in heaven, and records there are kept with infallible precision that God may reward His servants in due time.

The relation between these two men was unique. They worked together over 35 years in the seminary and in the work of the churches. They were about as different as it is possible for two people to be. They worked in harmony and unison, with a common cause and purpose. And both had nothing but respect for the other. Each always called the other by his last name.

But that meekness, as was the case with Moses, could sometimes be dispelled by a burst of fierce temper and violent rage, although it was an attack on the truth which most often provoked it. But if he did wrong to someone, he would be the first to apologize, beg forgiveness, and express heartfelt sorrow for his bad conduct.

His forgetfulness is legendary and remains to this day the subject of loving conversations that turn to his work in the churches. But that forgetfulness was often the fruit of total absorption in what was occupying his thoughts at the moment. His concentration was total. I personally witnessed, more than once, evidences of this. In the course of an ecclesiastical assembly a motion would be vigorously discussed, into which discussion Ophoff would enter. But while Ophoff was pondering the implications of the motion, it would be passed and the assembly would go on to other business. Suddenly he would jump to his feet and ask for the floor to discuss the recently passed motion. He never noticed the progress of the body, and if the matter was important, did not notice what else was happening on the body as he sank back into his own thoughts.

He had a tenacity that showed in remarkable ways. He could be relentless in pursuing the logical consequences of a proposition; he could hold to a point like a bulldog when others abandoned it; he could maintain a position against everyone else. But it was this very tenacity which enabled him to be the fit servant of Christ that he was in the defense of the faith. Yet, when he became convinced that he was wrong in his thinking, he was quick to admit it, for he was, above all, loyal to the Word.

And while he seemed so often to be completely oblivious to all that was going on around him, he had a penetrating insight into human nature and events in history. He taught me things about the powers of sin, human character as depraved and saved, relationships in life, which I shall never forget.

In the second chapter of the book of Judges we read that when Joshua died and all his generation, "there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel" (v. 10). That is Scripture's way of introducing the sad history of the judges. The generation that led our churches to the marvelous truths of Scripture which are our heritage has died and been gathered unto their fathers. Shall another generation arise which knows not the Lord? May God forbid it.