A Bit to Read
Liberation of 1944
The Canadian Reformed Churches have their own history. Previous articles in this series ‒on the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886 (with the Union of 1892)‒ brought that history to the beginning of the twentieth century. This time I’d like to trace this history further to the Liberation of 1944.
I do not doubt that the Union of 1892 was in accordance with the revealed will of God concerning the unity of His people. The churches formed by that Union, however, had their internal disagreements – and it’s these disagreements that coloured to large extent what happened next.
The difficulty surrounded the thoughts and teachings of Abraham Kuyper in relation to presumptive regeneration (see the Doleantie article for detail on this teaching). The long and short of the discussions was that the Synod of 1905 had to make a ruling on whether Kuyper’s teachings on presumption regeneration were Scripturally grounded or not. Synod’s answer on the point was this:
- “that, according to the Confession of our churches, the seed of the covenant must, in virtue of the promise of God, be regarded as regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until, as they grow up, the contrary is evident from their life or doctrine;
- that, however, it is less correct to say that baptism is administered to believers’ children on the ground of their assumed regeneration, for the ground of baptism is the command and promise of God;
- that, furthermore, the judgment of charity, whereby the church regards the seed of the covenant as regenerated, does not therefore in any way imply that every child is truly regenerated, since God’s Word teaches us that not all are Israel who are from Israel…”
Notice the guarded wording of this answer. The first dot point confirms what Kuyper taught, and ruled it was confessionally acceptable. The second dot point, however, found weakness with the first, and stated that there’s a better way to look at the matter. Kuyper was not wrong then, but wasn’t fully right either. Little wonder that this decision became known as the “Pacification Formula”. The term ‘pacification’ means to ‘make peace’, and that name indeed catches what the Synod said: it strove to be indecisive so that no one would be offended and peace be maintained in the churches. Neither side in the discussion was deemed fully right or fully wrong, and each was encouraged to live in peace with the other. At the end of the day the consensus was that Kuyper’s position too fell within the parameters of the Reformed Confessions.
In the course of the years, Kuyper’s ability to maintain a position of leadership waned due to increasing age. Young leaders also arose who dared to question some of Kuyper’s teachings – including his instruction on presumptive regeneration. In response, a number of Kuyper’s followers carried their master’s teachings to further extremes. Of particular interest to our subject today is the profile his supporters gave to Kuyper’s position on the covenant. It was evident that not all children in the covenant in fact received salvation; there were those once baptized who rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ and showed themselves to be unbelievers and unregenerate. That’s not neat and tidy: how can God make His identical covenant with those who will believe and be saved, and with those who will not believe its promises and not be saved?! So Kuyper spoke of an inner covenant and an outer covenant, and taught that those children who would believe were from infancy in the inner covenant, while those who would not believe (equally baptized on the grounds of presumed regeneration) were in fact in the outer covenant.
It turns out that Kuyper’s followers took his material on presumptive regeneration and inner/outer covenant (as well as other distinctions, eg, visible and invisible church, image of God in broader and narrower sense, grace as common and special, etc) to the pulpit and to the catechism class – and the people of the churches fell asleep under the weight of these lifeless distinctions. This was scholasticism at its best (or worst); heady theologians attempted to make the way and work of God in our fallen world understandable to limited human minds – and in the process the struggles the people of God encountered in real life were not addressed.
It’s for this reason that those young leaders who dared to question Kuyper’s teachings received an eager hearing in the congregations. These young leaders, including the young preacher Klaas Schilder, insisted on taking the Word of God at face value and were content not to be able to understand every part of God’s revelation. Where, they asked, does the Scripture speak of the infant already having faith in his heart so that you may presume his regeneration already in the cradle? When father Isaac looked at his two toddlers Jacob and Esau, did he have to think in terms of inner and outer covenant, that God’s promises to the one child were real while to the other they might not be? Schilder and those with him resisted the several distinctions Kuyper (and his followers) made on grounds that these distinctions were not found in Scripture and not echoed in the Reformed Confessions. More, they understood that making these distinctions rose out of a desire to understand how the things one sees in real life square with what the Lord God had revealed in Scripture. But the young leaders questioned how any mortal, affected as we all are by the brokenness resulting from the fall into sin, can ever fit all the twists and warps of this broken life into neat little boxes. God, they insisted, was beyond human comprehension, and so for preachers to make distinctions beyond the Bible’s revelation has no place in the public preaching. Let the congregations instead simply work with the Word as God gave it. That’s to say specifically: your children are all equally God’s children, with the same promises and so the same right to call upon God as Father and the Saviour as Redeemer. This is the way parents should approach their children, this is equally the way elders should approach the lambs of the flock, and it is the way preachers need to address the entire congregation irrespective of age. All belong to God in equal measure, simply because the Lord said that He establishes His covenant with believers and their seed (see Genesis 17:7; Acts 2:39). And that, of course, means that all have equal responsibility to respond obediently to God’s rich promises in the covenant.
The 1936 Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands mandated a committee to evaluate the distinctions Kuyper (and his followers) made as well as the criticisms levelled against these distinctions. This committee’s report served the synod convened in 1939. As a result, this synod (which, as it turned out, lasted four years – but that’s another story) insisted that Kuyper’s teachings in relation to presumptive regeneration and his distinctions about inner and outer covenant, etc, were Biblically and confessionally correct, while those who criticized his positions were Biblically and confessionally wrong. In fact, this Synod made clear that all preachers and teachers in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands were expected to present and defend these emphases in their preaching and teaching. While the Pacification Formula of 1905 wanted to leave room for Kuyper’s position as a possible interpretation of Scripture and confession (and so there was plenty of room to disagree publicly with Kuyper), the Synod of 1939-1942 left no room for disagreement with Kuyper at all, and insisted that Scripture and confession demanded Kuyper’s understanding.
Predictably, the next synod, convened in 1943, received on its table a multitude of appeals and objections against the decisions of Synod 1939-42. The Dutch nation was still heavily engaged in its war against Nazi Germany, and so freedom of movement and freedom of expression was much curtailed. Schilder himself, for example, had to hide from the invaders as they considered him dangerous to their cause. Understandably, this state of affairs produced the plea to maintain the pre-1939 status quo until the churches again had freedom and opportunity to consider responsibly the decisions of Synod 1939-42. But the new Synod had no such patience. In fact, Synod 1943 demanded compliance with the decisions of the previous Synod, to the point that those office bearers who objected were to be deposed from their offices in the churches. The first man deposed was Rev Klaas Schilder who by now was professor of Dogmatics at the Theological College of the churches in Kampen. Though Synod did not know where he was hiding, and did not speak with him face to face, they yet had the nerve to depose him on the grounds that he (they said) unsettled the peace in the churches through his objections to Synod’s embrace of Kuyper’s distinctions.
Other depositions quickly followed, so that soon enough a rupture appeared in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The grounds for the rupture were not only the dogmatic positions adopted by Synod in relation to Kuyper’s teachings, but also the inflexible and authoritarian attitude Synod adopted in forcing its position on the churches. There was no room left for freedom of conscience among those who could not find Kuyper’s doctrine in the Bible or in the Confessions.
While the war was still going on, a meeting was held on August 11, 1944 to discuss what to do in response to Synod’s hard insistence on believing doctrines not found in the Bible. Schilder himself appeared at this meeting (and disappeared directly thereafter) to encourage those in attendance to stay simply with the Bible and its faithful echo in the three Forms of Unity. An Act of Liberation and Return was read out, in which those in attendance pledged faithfulness to God’s Word and the Confessions of the church, and refused to be bound by anything beyond that. In so doing these ‘liberated people’ distanced themselves from the distinctions of Synods 1939-42 and 1943-44, on grounds that these distinctions were not found in Scripture or echoed in the confessions. More, those who liberated themselves from the bindings of Synod wanted to hear God’s Words to sinners in their own God-given clarity, and that’s to say that parents did not want to hear that maybe their little Johnny was regenerated or maybe he was not, and did not want to hear either that maybe their little Suzie was in God’s inner covenant or maybe she was in His outer covenant – all of which left the parents puzzled as to what God actually said to them and their child at baptism. They wanted to hear instead no more than the Bible actually revealed, and that was that God genuinely established His covenant of grace with believers and their seed, and that included themselves and therefore the children God in grace gave them. As they set themselves to their task of parenting, these parents wanted and needed reassurance that God’s promises were actually true and real for their little son, and so they could see their son as God’s child, count on God’s faithfulness, and impress the reality of God’s promises on their boy and train him to respond obediently and humbly to God’s covenant promises.
At the end of the day, then, the fine point of the Liberation of 1944 was not about what one ought to think about presumptive regeneration. The fine point revolved around whether one could take God’s Word at face value, or whether one had to box it in with maybes and possibilities, so that the clarity of God’s Word was fogged in. Despite the war raging around them, many considered the clarity of God’s Word of greater importance than safety itself.
We are today some 65 years after the Liberation took place. The people involved in the Liberation –including persons deposed from their offices by Synod– include our parents and grandparents. Our ancestors received in the Liberation a new appreciation for the simple clarity of what God says, and this is a clarity they have sought to pass on to those who followed them. This is the heritage we need to preserve, whether we’re of those ancestors who remained in the Netherlands (to become the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands – Liberated) or whether we’re of those whose ancestors migrated to a new land (to form in Canada the Canadian Reformed Churches). How that heritage was preserved in Canada will, DV, be the subject of the next Bit to Read.
April 24, 2009