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The Janssen Case- Chapter 4: The Basic Issue (1)

In our last article, we called attention to the fact that the same views which Prof. Ralph Janssen taught in the Seminary and for which he was deposed are now views which are taught openly and freely throughout the church of which Dr. Janssen was a member.

In inquiring how it was possible that the Christian Reformed Church openly teaches today what it condemned less than 70 years ago, we stated that the chief reason for this was to be found in the doctrine of common grace, a doctrine which Janssen appealed to in defense of his views on Scripture, but a doctrine which was not condemned when Janssen was condemned.  It was, rather, officially declared to be the truth of the Scriptures by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church two years after Janssen’s deposition.

This fact is important.  It is important primarily because the history of our own Protestant Reformed Churches is inseparably connected with the whole common grace controversy.  The spiritual fathers of our denomination were put out of the Christian Reformed Church for repudiating common grace and for refusing to sign “the three points.”

If, therefore, common grace was also an important part of the Janssen controversy, the whole history of the Janssen controversy is part of the history of our churches.  It is for this reason that it is so important for us to understand it.  We must know our own history and understand it well if we are to be faithful to our heritage.

The facts are simply these.  When Janssen was accused of teaching views of Scripture which were contrary to Scripture itself and our Reformed Confessions, Janssen defended himself by appealing to the doctrine of common grace.  Although Janssen was condemned and deposed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1922 for his views of Scripture, the Synod never said one word about common grace.

The result was that, immediately after the controversy over Janssen’s teachings was settled, common grace became an issue in the Christian Reformed Church and controversy began to swirl around that doctrine.  All this controversy came to a head at the Synod of 1924 where the Synod adopted “the three points.”  As a result of adopting the three points, three ministers were put out of the church:  Revs. Hoeksema, Ophoff and Danhof.  That formed the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

This history leads us to two questions.  The first is:  How did Dr. Janssen connect the doctrine of common grace with his denial of the infallible inspiration of Scripture?  The second is:  Why did not the Christian Reformed Church, when it condemned Janssen, also deal with (and condemn) the doctrine of common grace?

We are going to answer the last of these questions first.  After we have answered that question, we will discuss the question of how Janssen connected common grace with his denial of Scripture.

The question of how Janssen defended his views on Scripture with the doctrine of common grace is the most important one.  And it is most important because I am convinced that the reason why Janssen’s views are widely taught in the Christian Reformed Church today is that, although the Christian Reformed Church condemned Janssen’s views on Scripture, it did not condemn his views on common grace; rather, two years later it adopted them.  Because common grace was adopted by the Christian Reformed Church, that denomination faces the growing problem of dealing with the same heresies of Janssen which now are taught in the church.

But first things first.

Why did not the Synod deal with Janssen’s common grace, but only with his denial of Scripture?

In order to understand this strange phenomenon, we have to know a little bit of the history that was involved in the whole issue.

Common grace, in one form or another, had been taught in the Christian Reformed Church from its beginning in 1847.  This was chiefly because common grace had also been taught by the churches of the Afscheiding, those churches that had left the State Church in the Netherlands in 1834 under the leadership of De Cock, Van Raalte, Brummelkamp and others.  Because most of the early immigrants to this country who formed the Christian Reformed Church were of the Afscheiding, they quite naturally took common grace with them into this country.

In addition to this, Dr. Abraham Kuyper left the State Church in 1886.  After he became prime minister of the Netherlands at the head of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, he, too, began to teach common grace, and, in fact, wrote a three-volume work on the subject.  Although his views of common grace were somewhat different from those of the people of the Afscheiding, they, too, came into this country and into the Christian Reformed Church when immigrants came to America from Kuyper’s churches in the Netherlands.

So, common grace was rather generally taught throughout the denomination.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that common grace was fixed doctrine in the Christian Reformed Church.  It had received no systematic development, nor had it become, by any ecclesiastical decision, official teaching.  It was, so to speak, just there; it, like Topsy, just “growed”; but it was, emphatically, an open question in the churches.  That is, no one was bound to believe and teach the doctrine by virtue of the binding character of ecclesiastical decision.  The majority accepted the doctrine without much thought.  But a minority never really did believe it.  Both found a congenial home in the Christian Reformed Church.

In 1918, Rev. Herman Hoeksema was appointed editor of the column in The Banner entitled, “Our Doctrine.”  Not very long after he began writing in this column he began to discuss the whole question of common grace, especially as that was taught by A. Kuyper.

At first, Rev. Hoeksema did not hesitate to speak of a certain common grace, but he insisted right from the start that this “so-called common grace” meant nothing more than that the reprobate in the human organism shared in the blessings given the elect in special grace.

But even then, this share in the blessings of special grace was an outward sharing, an outward blessing, while inwardly these very blessings were a curse.  They could, so Hoeksema argued, be nothing else but a curse because the total depravity of the sinner made it impossible for him to have any receptivity at all in his heart for the grace of God.

There were those in the church, even at this early date, who were defending common grace under the name of Calvinism, and Hoeksema took the time in his articles in The Banner to warn that these men were advocating a Calvinism which would establish an alliance between the church and the world.  And he insisted that “in this common grace a sphere is created in which the children of light and the children of darkness as such can find common ground, common principle and work together in harmony.

These views of Hoeksema were challenged.  In answer to his challengers, Hoeksema asked the question:  Is there any favor, grace or love to man outside of Christ?  And, Does the natural man have any receptivity for this grace?  He attacked common grace head on when he emphatically condemned the view that God took an attitude of favor towards the reprobate.  He warned that common grace led to a spirit of broad-mindedness in the church, and attacked common grace from the viewpoint of its efforts to establish the kingdom here below before Christ comes.

This was all before the Janssen controversy.  Hoeksema’s position on common grace was, therefore, generally known in the churches.  And yet, outside of those who publicly defended common grace, no one raised a voice against him and no one questioned his orthodoxy or commitment to the Reformed faith.