From Dort to Today (14): The Development of the Reformed Faith

We are discussing history that touches directly upon our own Protestant Reformed Churches. For many within our own denomination have their spiritual roots in the secession of 1834. Many of our older people in our churches had parents or grandparents who took an active part in the secession and can themselves tell of the stirring times when the Church of Christ gained once again its precious heritage of the truth.

We must understand however, that the secession was a rather disorganized movement, especially in its beginnings. There was no organized process of secession. There were, as early as 1826 in fact, many groups that left the State Church and never joined the churches that carried on the Reformed faith. They were sort of “sucker branches” on the tree of the church. Yet we do well, at least briefly, to notice some of them.

For one thing, when the people became weary of the doctrinal heresies and moral decay of their congregations, they sometimes simply ceased going to Church altogether. They grouped together into little bands which met in houses. Without any ministers of the gospel, they were instructed by “exhorters”—i.e., men who were not ordained clergy, but who, being rather gifted laymen, would “exhort” the people from the Word of God. Anyone who has any acquaintance with the cultural history of the Netherlands will be aware of such men as Bilderkijk and DaCosta who were leaders in this movement. Some of these groups never did join the churches of the secession.

There were secondly, some sectarian movements of secession which never belonged to the Reformed faith and were, in their own ways, just as heretical as the church from which they seceded. For example, there was a group called “New Lights of Zwijnrecht” and another group called the “Christian Brethren Congregation” who were thoroughly subjective and mystical. In a limited sense they were even communistic in that they practiced community of earthly goods. But more importantly, they taught such heretical doctrines as universal salvation; the anabaptistic view of an earthly kingdom of Christ—in which they held all civil law in contempt and set up their own nation within a nation; the doctrine of additional revelation besides the Scriptures—to which we have referred in previous articles. Some of these groups later left the Netherland to come to America where part of their membership joined the Mormons.

There was also a chiliastic sect led by a certain Jan Mazereeuw which thought that Christ was coming at any moment. Consequently, and foolishly, they took their children out of school, sold their lands and possessions and waited with folded hands for Christ to return. They were in bad trouble when they discovered to their dismay that they had committed a theological error.

There were also several independent groups which were fighting the same evils in the Church as the seceders, but who never joined the Reformed Churches. Notable among these was a group led by Rev. Ledeboer, who fought strenuously against the introduction of hymns in the Church.

But to get on with the real separation which led to the re-establishment of a Reformed Church.

It all began with Rev. De Cock, who was minister in the Reformed Church of Ulrum. In October of 1834, this minister was suspended from office and deposed as minister of the Word of God by the National Church. The grounds for suspension and deposition were pretty flimsy.

1) He had baptized children of parents from other Churches because these parents refused to answer “Yes” to the question of the Baptism Form which asked them concerning their belief in the doctrine “taught here in this Christian Church”.1
2) He had written an introduction to a pamphlet which had attacked the singing of Arminian hymns in various congregations.
3) He had openly and in writing attacked two ministers who held heretical views. One of these ministers he attacked denied the truth of the trinity; the other denied the sinless nature of Christ. The National Church was of the considered opinion that this last ground was the most important.

With the deposition of Rev. De Cock, the secession began. The break had been forced by the State Church itself. The secession was a reality.

Events quickly followed. In spite of his deposition, De Cock continued to preach to his people who needed him. He called upon others to join him. He wrote the chief documents of secession which emphasized the need for return to the creeds, the liturgical forms and the Church Order of Dordt.

Soon after his deposition, Rev. Scholte was also deposed on the grounds that he had preached for De Cock after De Cock’s deposition. Rev. Brummelkamp was deposed for refusing to baptize children of non-confession parents and for refusing to sing hymns in his congregation. Other discipline followed. Rev. Van Raalte was disciplined for refusing to promise unconditional obedience to all the decisions and laws of the General Synod. This happened at the time of his examination for the ministry. Rev. Van Velzen was deposed from office on the same grounds that were used to discipline Van Raalte.

Other ministers joined with those who seceded, in sympathy with their cause. And they took many people with them.

Before we pursue this history a little bit more, we ought to notice that the basic question was always the question of the authority of the creeds.2 The stand of the Church (also expressed in the Formula of Subscription) had always been that the Three Forms of Unity were agreed to as being in full harmony with the truth of Scripture. The National Church, in order to through a benevolent wing over the heretics in the Church, had deliberately changed this wording so that agreement had to be expressed only in so far as these creeds were in harmony with Scripture. This may seem minor, but it was a very subtle and deceitful change which really left the interpretation and acceptance of the creeds to every individual. Any man could believe and teach anything he wanted to and justify his opposition to the confessions on the ground that he did not agree with the confessions. This was the end of the matter. The seceders were insistent on returning to the historical stand of the Church.

We ought to pause here for just a moment. It is worth noticing that history has a way of repeating itself. Once again, in our own day, the question is really one of the creeds. Every kind of heresy appears again in the modern church. Naturally, these heresies run counter to the creeds. In the churches which maintain the same creeds as we do there are all kinds of these heresies being taught. Also, in the churches which stand on the basis of such Calvinistic confessions as the Westminster Confession of Faith, no heresy that has ever appeared in the Church is strange any longer. Once again cries are raised in support of universal atonement. Once again the infallibility of Scripture is called into question. Once again such truths as the trinity and the divinity of Christ are being flaunted; and in confessionally based churches.

What then about the creeds? They are obstacles (as they are intended to be) against the propagation of error. So they must be disposed of. And this is exactly what one hears all around us. From the pages of ecclesiastical magazines comes the loud cry (even in Reformed Churches) that we must revise and update our creeds. They are dusty documents of a bygone era which “no longer speak to the church of today”. They are ancient and decrepit archives that while of interest for their historical value ought not to have binding authority in the Church. They are museum pieces which are probably worth some occasional studying; but they must not be permitted to stand in the way of making “the gospel relevant to our twentieth century”.

This hue and cry marks the spiritual downfall of the Church. For by brushing aside the creeds, the church loosens itself from its moorings and becomes a rudderless ship cast about by every wind of doctrine.

Some Churches are already discarding their creeds. A notable example is the United Presbyterian Church in this country which is on the verge of adopting an entirely new document which will supersede the historic Westminster Confession upon which this Church has always stood.3

But this is little worse than the complete indifference to the creeds which characterizes practically every denomination. For while, in many instances, creeds still remain the official basis of the Church, they have been unnoticed and un-mourned, pushed into oblivion.

The danger is real. There is a lesson from all this which needs learning—badly. We must be at great pains to know our confessions, to become thoroughly acquainted with them; to love them; to cherish them as a precious heritage of the Spirit of Christ entrusted to our care. And we must fight to maintain them, not merely as dead documents, but as the living expression of the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ.

1Cf. preceding article for discussion of this point
2By “creeds” I now mean the principle “Three Forms of Unity”, but also the lesser creeds—our liturgical forms and Church Order.
3There is no footnote for this one.