A Bit to Read
Dolientie and Union
In a previous Bit to Read (last October), we traced the developments that led to the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. Since the truth of God’s Word was no longer embraced, many faithful believers under the leadership of men as Rev deCock departed from the established State Church and formed a new federation of churches. In this new federation of churches, the authority of the Word of God was specifically acknowledged, and the intent categorically expressed to embrace the truths of Scripture as confessed in the three Forms of Unity and worked out in the Church Order of Dort.
Invariably, sin and weakness plagued the ‘new’ church. There were but six ministers, all of them young, and none of them had been trained to think as reformed confessors; they had to study Calvin’s Institutes themselves and learn to think according to the patterns of the Confessions. The young leaders had different emphases, which in turn led to clashes and friction. Add on top of that the scorn that was publicly heaped on the Seceded people, and it becomes obvious that things were not easy for those of our fathers who belonged to these churches.
Problems magnified when many in the Seceded churches, under the influence of the spirit of the times, gave themselves to subjectivism. It had in time past been assumed that church goers simply belonged to the Lord and so had forgiveness of their sins and were heirs to life eternal. But with the return to the Word of God in the Secession, this was seen as too simplistic; obviously, going to church in itself did not mean that you were right with God. The leaders of the seceded churches sought the Bible’s answer to how one can be sure of salvation, and taught the people of the pew that God was faithful to His promises in the covenant.
But pendulums on a clock swings from far side to far side. Similarly, a corrective from one extreme leads so often to embracing an opposite extreme. Instead of accepting God’s promises in Jesus Christ and insisting that ones confidence about redemption depend on His redeeming work, the leaders in the Secession churches instructed their churches to concentrate their attention on what they experienced in themselves. They took to navel-gazing: was there sufficient sorrow for sin within oneself? Did they receive a ‘Damascus Experience’ (as Saul did in Acts 9) so that they could be really sure that Christ’s sacrifice was actually for them (and not just for the neighbour)? Did they receive some vision or voice or dream that gave them proof that God’s gospel was really true for them? This is subjectivism, seeking reassurance of God’s promises in the feelings and experiences detected in ones own heart.
In varying degree this emphasis found its way through the churches, and in varying degree this emphasis was also resisted by faithful covenant preaching. In part because they wanted to stress this emphasis on the soul still more, a group left the Seceded churches in 1841 under the leadership of Rev LGC Ledeboer. This group became the Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands. Members of this body of churches migrated to North America after the 2nd World War and settled –among other places– in Chilliwack to form the Netherlands Reformed Congregations on Broadway Street and Gibson Road. Today still the members of these churches search within their own experiences for reassurance that Christ’s work on the cross is actually for them. See below.
In 1837 Abraham Kuyper was born within the established Reformed Church of the Netherlands – the government recognized State Church, those who did not go along with the Secession of 1834. He was raised to have little respect for the authority of God’s Word and much respect for the ability of the human mind to reason its way to solutions to life’s questions. Kuyper, like so many in his church, didn’t give much credence to human depravity and to God’s judgment on sin, and considered Jesus Christ a good moral teacher. Even so, Kuyper trained for the ministry and was ordained in 1863 in the village of Beesd.
I need to mention here that things were not all peaceful in the church to which Kuyper belonged. Because the ministers largely denied human depravity, there was little emphasis on the need for Christ’s atoning work. So church attendance was poor, with the pious meeting instead in little groups to comfort and encourage each other in God’s service. As Kuyper settled into his ministry in Beesd he visited those in his congregation who were less than faithful in their church attendance. One senior sister by the name of Pietje Baltus showed Kuyper the truth of the gospel – including the good news of Christ’s self-emptying on the cross for sinners’ salvation. Under God’s blessing the young minister grappled with church fathers as John Calvin and came to faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour for sinners. This change in the preacher invariably changed his preaching also.
After serving his congregation in Beesd for four years, Kuyper moved to Utrecht. Here he developed an interest for politics and began to follow closely what was happening in government circles. In 1870 he moved to Amsterdam to minister to the large congregation of that city. It was while he was in Amsterdam that he began to write a daily paper called The Standard and a weekly paper known as The Herald. In 1874 he resigned his pastorate in this city to take up a seat in the Dutch parliament. In 1880 he began the Free University in Amsterdam, and in 1900 he even became Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Abraham Kuyper was obviously an enormously gifted man. In his two papers he wrote not only Scriptural meditations, but also interacted with theological trends of his day, and gave leadership too in matters of politics, education, science, and so much more. At this point in our story, it’s his reaction to the subjectivism mentioned earlier that needs our attention.
Kuyper learned from Scripture that all mankind had fallen into sin and so joined Satan’s side. God, though, in mercy had chosen some people to salvation (election) while He in justice passed other people by (reprobation). So the human race was divided into two groups on the basis of election. On the one side were the believers and on the one side the unbelievers. The believers, said Kuyper, were regenerated, while the unbelievers were not regenerated; the believers had faith, while the unbelievers did not.
The question now arises: where do children fit into this? To which camp does your newborn belong? Kuyper answered that believers’ children belonged with the believers, and then added that the newborn already had faith and was regenerated. No, the faith in the infant’s heart was not alive yet and the regeneration was not evident yet, but that will come when the child grows. Kuyper pointed to seeds of grain that archaeologists of his day had found in Egyptian tombs; this grain had lain dormant for years and now when water was added they sprouted and grew. So too with faith, he said; God plants the seed of faith in the heart of the infant, and after many years waters it with the preaching of the Word, and behold, the seed of faith sprouts and grows into a living faith. Then the regeneration that God worked in infancy manifests itself in a godly lifestyle. Since the child already has the seed of faith in his heart and so is regenerated, the infant ought also to be baptized – as a sign that God has in fact regenerated the child. Notice: baptism is here not a sign and seal of God’s covenant, but is instead a sign and seal of God’s accomplished work of regeneration in the child’s heart.
But consider now a practical problem. For the sake of the argument, suppose a godly couple is blessed with twins. Both receive the sacrament of baptism to signify that God has already worked faith in their hearts and regenerated them. Some weeks after birth the one child dies. In your grief you find comfort in the good news of baptism-as-sign-of-regeneration, and are assured that this child has gone to be with the Lord in heaven because her heart was regenerated. The other child continues to grow to manhood and –horror of horrors– wants nothing to do with God and His service; the second twin is a drunk and a thief – obviously not regenerated. But what, then, are you to think concerning what you were told when your babies were baptized? Was baptism not a sign that God had regenerated the twins, and wasn’t that the ground of your comfort when the first twin died? But if it’s evident now that the surviving twin was not regenerated, on what grounds can you maintain that the deceased twin was regenerated – despite the baptism of both? Is the first one then not in heaven after all?!
Kuyper answered the question by insisting on the link between baptism and regeneration, and then adding that parents when they present their infant for baptism are to presume their child is regenerated, and so presume that the Lord has placed the seed of faith in their infant’s heart. That becomes, then, the ground for baptism; parents have their children baptized on the grounds of presumed regeneration. They may train up their child on the assumption of his regeneration (and therefore of his election), and may maintain that assumption until it proves to be wrong in adulthood.
This, then, was Kuyper’s answer to the subjectivism mentioned earlier. You don’t, he said, look inside your soul for signs that Christ’s work is for you; you look instead at your baptism – and that’s indeed an improvement. But Kuyper misrepresented what baptism signified. He didn’t see it as a sign of God’s covenant promises (to which you have the obligation to respond through faith), but as sign of a godly work already accomplished in you (which may turn out in later life to be absent after all).
We need to drop this thread on regeneration and assurance for a minute to pick up another subject. The state church (to which Kuyper belonged) didn’t insist on the doctrines of Scripture anymore; man was not depraved and so did not have to repent of sin and seek forgiveness in the blood of Jesus Christ.
Well now, after Kuyper resigned as Minister of the Word in Amsterdam in order to take up a calling as Member of Parliament, he was chosen to the office of elder in his old church. So he got caught up in new developments in church life. It used to be the rule in the State church that anyone wishing to make profession of faith had to confess the doctrine of the Trinity and agree to maintain this doctrine. As some consistories thought that such a thumbnail doctrine was too sketchy (and so insisted on young people knowing and confessing much more before they would allow profession of faith), church authorities regulated that a member could appear before a more liberal neighbouring consistory and make profession of faith in that church – provided, notice, that his own congregation would provide an attestation testifying to good moral conduct. Then, after professing faith in the liberal congregation next door, the young man could come back and participate in Lord’s Supper in his own congregation.
The church in Amsterdam in which Kuyper was an elder refused to permit members to profess the faith if the faith they wanted to profess was nothing more than acknowledging the reality of the Trinity. When such members requested an attestation to the more liberal church next door to make profession of faith there, Amsterdam’s consistory declined to grant one. When the matter was appealed to classis, the church authorities (in October 1885) ruled against Amsterdam and demanded that attestations be issued – which Amsterdam again refused to do. One understands that tensions escalated, and frustration did too.
In January 1886, the church authorities appointed by classis suspended 80 of the 100 office bearers of the church of Amsterdam (including Kuyper), and wrote out the requested attestations for those who wanted to receive admission to the Lord’s Table simply on the basis of acknowledging the Trinity. To make sure that the 80 office bearers could not get at the church archives, the classis authorities took it upon themselves to change the lock of the storeroom…, which was promptly removed and a guard posted…, until a civil judge could rule in the matter…. Because the 80 disturbed the peace (it was said), the authorities appointed by classis now deposed them from their office. Efforts by the 80 to appeal the wrong of it all to synodical assemblies proved futile, and so, in December 1886, the deposed office bearers decided to go into ‘dolientie’, a term meaning ‘complaining’, ‘grieving’. They complained of wrongs in the church, and recognized that they could no longer be one with the state church. This new church, of course, did not appear only in Amsterdam; through his writing in his papers Kuyper had given ample leadership to many other congregations throughout the Netherlands.
The people of the Dolientie of 1886 quickly established contact with the people of the Secession of 1834. The two churches recognized in each other a kindred love for God and appreciation for His Word, recognized in each other too a mutual respect for the three Forms of Unity and a desire to live according to the Church Order of Dort. Back in 1834 at the time of their Secession from the State church, the Seceeders had stated publicly that they desired to join together with all who would serve God obediently with them on the basis of the Forms of Unity. Here was now a group who desired to serve God faithfully, and so the Seceded churches pursued unity with the new Dolientie group. The union became a reality six years later, in 1892.
That’s not to say, though, that the Seceded churches were all enthused about Abraham Kuyper. Yes, they had much respect for him as an exceptionally gifted leader, who sincerely sought to give Biblical leadership in the questions of the day. But many had great difficulty embracing Kuyper’s teachings on presumptive regeneration. Looking inside oneself for evidence that one was actually redeemed by Jesus’ blood did not give the comfort and assurance one needed, but looking instead at a baptism administered on the basis of presumed regeneration did not give comfort and assurance either. Here was an item of unfinished disagreement that needed to be discussed further after the Union. Meanwhile, it was felt that the Union could proceed on the grounds that all parties concerned stood side by side on the same basis of Scripture as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity.
It should be noted that the Union turned out to be a blessing for both sides. Though Kuyper’s doctrine of presumptive regeneration was distinctly wrong, it nevertheless provided catalyst for those tending to subjectivism to reconsider their thinking. How, actually, does one receive reassurance that one is in fact a child of God and heir to life eternal?! The Union compelled further investigation on this question, an investigation that led to greater clarity on God’s revelation about the covenant. But that’s a story for another time, a story that will end up at the Liberation of 1944.
Back to Subjectivism
As it turns out, a number of the Seceded churches declined to join in the Union of 1892 because of their objections against Kuyper. This smallish group maintained their own churches in the Netherlands. In the course of time some of their descendents migrated to the New World and established churches in our land. These are the Free Reformed Churches of North America, one of which is found on Yale Road in Chilliwack. Something of the subjectivism that characterized much of the thinking of the Secession Churches before the Union of 1892 is still found in these churches.
In fact, Rev Berends spoke to the congregation last spring on the several reformed churches of our area, and drew out especially this subjective element. He’d familiarized himself with the positions of the Netherlands Reformed Congregation on Gibson Road, the Netherlands Reformed Congregation on Broadway, the Heritage Reformed Congregation (a group that broke away from the Broadway church in the 1990’s), and the Free Reformed Church. He concluded that on the subject of the assurance of salvation these four churches are all of a kind, that is, all seek their sense of assurance within their own experience. All insist that you need some sense within you that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for you, and not just for your neighbour. The difference between the four churches is one of degrees; whereas the Gibson church wants a 100 pounds of weight before you can be sure, the Free Reformed seeks only 10 pounds – and the other two are somewhere in between. None of these four churches have received the benefit that flowed from confronting Kuyper’s error on presumptive regeneration, and that’s to say that none of the four have come to embrace and appreciate what the covenant is really all about.
In the gracious providence of God, our ecclesiastical ancestry runs back through the Union of 1892 and so builds on the cross-fertilization that resulted from the Secession churches merging with the Dolientie. Some of our parents are of Secession origin, while others are of Dolientie origin. Both had to give and take as a result of the Union. That Union in turn most certainly brought its tensions and struggles –the Liberation of 1944!– but by God’s grace we have received much through the Union of 1892.