with permission from Clarion
Vol. 44, No. 15/16 (1995)
Translated by A.J. Hordyk
This article by Dr. J. Douma was published in the Dutch periodical Bij de Tijd in the June/July 1994 issue under the title 'Vijftig jaar Vrijmaking.' It is presented here in a freely translated form because of the parallel between our churches in Canada and our sister churches in the Netherlands.
The Liberation of 1944 was an intense experience for me. Our country was at war and the German occupation was with us every day. Our radio was tuned to London, and we were anxious to get our hands on any underground newspapers. In our home, however, we talked about other things as well. It was rather tense in our reformed churches. Professors Schilder and Greijdanus were suspended. My dad read any brochure he could obtain from both sides, and so did I. I remember that he came home from a consistory meeting with a letter from Schilder that was mailed to all church consistories. It was my first introduction to the man who would become of so much influence in the Liberation and in the liberated reformed churches.
As it was my father's conviction that we should fight the Germans, so also he never had any doubts in justifying the necessity of the Liberation. On Sundays we followed him into a school classroom instead of going to a real church building. It did not take long to get used to this.
We experienced golden years. The elderly, who were old enough to compare, told us that the preaching had changed considerably. I could not make these comparisons, but enjoyed the new direction immensely. It was made clear to us how important the covenant was, and how trustworthy its promises. We were taught the meaning of Christ-centered redemptive historical preaching. We saw the lines from par adise to Christ's return. Sermons also drew our attention to the approach of His return and announced the arrival of the antichrist. After all, didn't we notice the concentration of political powers in the United Nations, as well as in an ecumenical bond, both ready to overthrow the small true church?
We said good-bye to the Kuyper era. For us, his name was synonymous with "scholastic," a word I first heard in those days. The message we heard was that we had to free ourselves from all scholastics. Did not Kuyper's views about presumptive regeneration shake the foundations of truth and of faith in God's promises and of infant baptism? Did his teachings about the pluriformity of the church not raise a lot of concern as well? Should we not have been grateful that with Schilder we had discovered the richness of the covenant, grateful, too, that we could read Scripture again in a redemptive historical way and that we could be serious about our confession concerning the church?
From within the liberated-reformed churches a rush of new activity in political and social fields developed. After all, membership in the Antirevolutionaire Partij or the Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond was seen as no longer possible. How could you cooperate with people who did not want you in their church any longer on Sunday, but still wanted you to join them again on Monday in their activities for the benefit of God's kingdom? This was ethically impossible. Furthermore, was it not required that all Christians, even those without "ethical conflicts" such as existed between the Liberated and the synodicals, should first be united in one church before they could join hands in politics, social activities and educational matters, etc.? This position made working together with synodicals, but also with "gereformeerde bonders" and "christelijk gereformeerden" (Free Reformed) impossible.
When we at first had our liberated church services in the classroom, I was very disappointed about one aspect. How was it possible that only one third of our congregation had been liberated? It should have been abundantly clear to any normal person that synods had exceeded their authority, and demanded submission to the teachings of a pre-supposed born-again theory. This submission had never before been required! It was really crazy that learned and reformed people like Schilder and Greijdanus were suspended and deposed! Even Dutch reformed theologians like C.G. van Niftrik agreed with us.
These were my thoughts at a time when I felt that important choices in one's life were made by clear reasoning and airtight arguments. Besides our mind, however, there is a will which does not always listen to the commands of pure reasoning. The emotional aspect should not be forgotten. We may think here of the parable of Jesus about the people who were invited to a feast. Who could be so silly as to decline the invitation? Yet, one by one, all of the invited guests excused themselves. The first one had bought a farm, the other a number of oxen, the third one had just been married (Luke 14 and 16). A large number of situations may have priority when we must make a very important decision in our life. While we may be amazed at those who did not accept the invitation, we also know that these are people like us. If you really don't want to go, you will always find a reason.
That's what happened during the Liberation. Wife, children, relatives, friends, the job, an uncertain future, a dislike for hot-headed concerned church members or the "all or nothing" attitude of Schilder and his followers - these and many other factors may have been decisive for many not to go along with the Liberation, in spite of their personal concerns. It is not very pleasant to leave an environment where you have lived with so much enjoyment.
When we analyze what has happened among us since the Liberation, we see that for many it became unpleasantto remain liberated. Theywere turned off not by the Liberation, but by the liberated. They could no longer function in what they regarded as an almost choking climate. Many felt left out because they would not go along with what was presented as "continual reformation" (doorgaande reformatie). Others complained about legalism as an attack against Christian freedom.
Many desired more space for opinions which were not according to our Confession. For example, some wanted room for ideas that conflicted with Lord's Day 22 (is my soul, after this life, immediately taken up to Christ, my Head?) while for others there were disagreements with the teaching about predestination in the Canons of Dordt. To discipline those who adopted these opinions and propagated them was rejected as confessionalism. Others asked whether the break with the synodicals was really so serious that it could not be fixed. Even when the liberal ideas of Kuitert and others created an all around turmoil, the call for healing the break was still maintained. The well-known "Open Letter" (Open Brief) of 1966, signed by ministers and other important liberated church members, called for a burial of the hatchets. It asked us to leave our own preconceived ideas in order to clear the 1944 conflict once and for all.
Thus, to go along with the initial Liberation became a different story than to remain liberated.
Why did we stay?
We who are still liberated fifty years later should give account of our staying with the Liberation when so many left. Did those who left see the negatives for which we were blind, or to which we deliberately had closed our eyes?
In a short while, I will address the controversial items. It needs to be said that in spite of all the controversies, there was and still is every reason to remain liberated. I do believe in more than the historic justification of the Liberation. After fifty years we are allowed to observe with satisfaction that our adversaries of that time (synodalen) are embarrassed when looking back at what their synods had earlier done. The historic justification has not weakened, although it represented only one aspect of the issue. It is a fact that even the thousands who left our liberated churches did so without any apologies for their liberation.
Why then did we remain liberated? I speak for myself, but allow me to be the spokesman of many. I remained liberated because I did not want to be non-reformed. You can have the typically liberated, but I do not want to part with the typically reformed. What does this mean for me? Allow me to explain this on the basis of the questions asked when we did profession of faith, which we answered with "Yes."
In the first place we confessed that the doctrine of the Old and New Testament is the true and complete doctrine of our salvation, and we promised that with the help of God's grace, we would stay with this confession in life and death. We declared that this doctrine is taught "here, in the Christian Church." I still declare this, while 1 could not make this statement about a lot of other churches. Naturally, a Church should do more than defend the true doctrine, but if she fails in this task and instead attacks the doctrine or allows it to be attacked, then we might as well go home. Fifty years ago, when the "Act of Liberation" talked about the decay that had crept into the doctrine, many felt that this statement was too strong. Today, this decay is evident enough for us to remain what we are, namely, members of the Reformed churches, where the first question of our Profession of Faith is taken seriously.
The second question we were asked at our Profession of Faith was whether we acknowledged God's covenant promises which had been signified and sealed to us at our baptism. What this question really meant is explained in what follows immediately in the Form. We were admitted to Holy Supper, because we declared that we detested and humbled ourselves before God because of our sins and sought our life outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ, our only Saviour. This elaboration highlights the promises of the covenant that we were delivered out of our personal misery by Jesus Christ.
Thus, to be Reformed clearly involves a lot more than mere acceptance of the reformed doctrine. We should be personally part of that doctrine. Being Reformed is about my bap tism and what has been promised, namely, Jesus who is my life. In opposition to the pre-supposed regeneration doctrine, we embraced complete reliance on God's promises to all those who are baptized. This reliance on the promise was not intended to lead to covenant-robot thinking which ignores the importance of how baptized people react to God's promises. It is quite possible that personal faith within the liberated churches is somewhat subdued. In any event, it has not disappeared. With every celebration of the Lord's supper we are called to self-examination, to discover our poverty, our emptiness and our superficial lifestyle. We should be true to ourselves in realizing that there is only one name through whom we may be saved. It is therefore unreasonable to blame the church instead of ourselves when complaining about spiritual poverty.
Also in view of the second question of our Profession of Faith, therefore, I may be thankful that I am liberated reformed. Among us, sin and guilt, together with our personal experience of both of these, are not swept under the carpet.
The third question at our Profession of Faith asked us to declare that we loved the Lord and that it was our heart felt desire to serve Him according to His Word, to forsake the world and to crucify our old nature. This confronted us with the question what we as liberated reformed members of the Church of Christ were going to do with our faith. We need doctrine, we need faith, but we also need Christian works. If we may look back at what has happened in the past fifty years, we have enough reason to be thankful. It would not be hard to be critical, but one should look at the broader picture. Then I dare to state that collectively, as churches, we have a heartfelt desire to love our God and to serve him according to His word. I think about the care for our handicapped, the chronically ill and elderly, and of what was done in mission work and world relief. Works of mercy were certainly not lacking among us.
Finally, we consider our fourth question, according to which we promised to submit ourselves willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church, if it should happen that we became delinquent in either doctrine or conduct. We thereby undertook to be part of a community which could address us and deal with us if we went the wrong way. In spite of some in stances among us in which the judgments were rather harsh - perhaps too harsh - this does not prevent me from stating aloud that I am very glad to be allowed to live in a Church which still knows what discipline is.
Let me summarize this part of my story. Fifty years after the Liberation, I am still very grateful for what I inherited. It has been for the benefit of my whole life. On certain issues I did change my mind, as did many among us. Something else, however, has priority over those changes. The choice made by my parents, which I soon adopted also as my own, I will always recognize. For me, the Church was not the "outside" of my faith, but touched the depths of my life. The statement that our faith concerns Christ but not the Church is unacceptable to me. For me it is Christ, and also His Church. I was born in a Church that took me to Christ, a Church that taught me respect for Holy Scriptures, and that would not exempt me if I went the wrong way, and would also show me in days of happiness and sorrow what communion of saints means. Anyone will have moments when he speaks about "his" Church in a less positive way than I do here. However, as we now remember the Liberation and ask the question whether we see the tie between 1944 and 1994, then I will have no difficulty giving a positive reply. I hope that we all may agree, in spite of any differences among us.
I already mentioned the controversial issues which I intended to cover. To avoid being long-winded, I will confine myself to only a few of these. At first I thought to discuss the separation of 1967. It is better not to do this, at least not in a broad form. One may ask me why I classify this as a controversial issue.
I have discovered that many among us have great difficulty coping with what then took place. By reason of my close involvement, I prefer that others will judge this issue, and at the same time provide a critical assessment of my part in it. Earlier I had mentioned the meaning of the "Open Letter" with respect to what it said about the need and possibility for unity with the synodical Churches. Only a small group of the signatories, including the composer B.J.F. Schoep, drew the natural conclusion to join the synodicals. Others who signed the "Open Letter" did not do this and have declared that they never intended to do so. They also stated that they differed from others, including me, in their interpretation of certain clauses of the letter. I ask myself today if we did them right in judging their intentions. There are additional items which now give me reason to question the wisdom of Synod 1967 of Hoogeveen. I am less convinced today.
What is still convincingly valid for me today about 1967 I have already mentioned. Publishing personal opinions which clearly contradict, for instance, Lord's Day 22 and the predestination doctrine of the Canons of Dordt is totally unacceptable for a reformed minister without following the proper ecclesiastical procedure, as he had promised to do. It is true that we should be against confessionalism. It is not difficult to show that there are some flaws in our three forms of unity. If we were to write a new confession today, we would do it differently than our fathers have done it. It would be really strange if four centuries of church history would be totally meaningless in a re-write of what we believe. However, as reformed ministers we are still bound by what we have promised. Being critical on a detail is different than criticism of large parts of our doctrine; it was for the latter that some were publicly confronted in and about 1967 by our churches. I am pleased that we have taken up contact again with the "Nederlands Gereformeerden," even at a deputy level.
I sincerely hope that these contacts will result in unity. We will need a climate in which both parties will admit that mistakes were made without digging them up again.
and false church
We went through a lot of change since the Liberation. After fifty years that does not surprise me. More important is the question if we had left "the track" or not. Some of us feel we have. The most obvious difference with the past is, in my opinion, that many among us have changed their vision of the application of how the true and false church is recognized and distinguished according to art. 29 of the Belgic Confession. These members who have changed their views have no difficulty with the article, but with its application in the current situation. Are we really to believe that in the Netherlands today there is only one visible true Church, the Liberated Reformed churches? When we propose this as a straight forward statement, how do we look then at article 27 that speaks about "a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers?" (in Dutch: alle Christgelovigen). Also, how do we read article 28 when it says of the Church that "there is no salvation outside of it?" Almost none among us dare to make this statement with respect to the Liberated Reformed churches. We were angry when outsiders tried to put these words in our mouths. Still, when we apply the confession in our discussion about the Church today, how do we interpret that little sentence? Or, what shall we say about the closing remarks of article 29, that these two churches (true and false) are easily recognized and distinguished from each other? To say this about the Roman and Reformed churches during the Reformation is no problem. May we today, however, make this statement about all churches with one exception, bearing in mind the horrible statements about the false Church?
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Liberation, I had already made the statement that we could have combined God's gift of the Liberation with a more modest handling of the term "true church." The damage inflicted should not be underestimated. It does not help to blame those outside, nor should we take false comfort in the truth that we were not quite as narrow-minded as we were accused of being. We were often indeed not so narrow-minded and did better than we thought. Often, however, we were real narrow-minded and that did cost us dearly. I remember that in one of my former congregations in which I served as pastor, we were requested by another local church to join in a protest against swearing. We could not do that then, we felt, because such cooperation would mean a denial of the fact that we were the only true church. We could not stand in one line with other churches, in spite of the fact that others also took up the good cause against swearing. In another municipality the consistory of the Netherlands Reformed Church requested the local liberated reformed Church to join in a protest to town council to oppose an approval to hold a fair on the Lord's Day. But our consistory could not do this, because it was "the only lawful consistory and the only lawful local congregation of Christ," and could not approve a submission of a Church which was not living by the standards set by Christ for a lawful Church. Our consistory urged the Netherlands Reformed congregation to liberate themselves and join the true Church. There are many of these examples. To remember the Liberation is for me also an assessment of the damage we have caused by our narrow-minded vision of the Church. The issue of Rev. Hoorn showed us how an opinion can become a life-or-death ideology in someone's life. Rev. Hoorn's ideology, however, was made from our liberated ingredients. How many were persecuted under even milder circumstances?
The strange part of this was that our doubts about our well-entrenched vision of the Church started to grow as we increased our dialogue with foreign Churches. We desired and became ecumenical. However, as soon as we crossed the borders, we had less difficulty than we had in the Netherlands to recognize good Churches from the others and to qualify the name "Church" even with Baptist and Peoples' Churches. We justified our somewhat broader position on the basis of the obviously different history of these Churches. In reality, their history did not really vary from ours. Our problems are exactly the same as theirs. However, the majority of our fellow believers abroad cope in a different way as soon as the term "Church" is mentioned. When we are honored with their visits with us, as a rule, they enjoy it as much to be in Kampen, Apeldoorn or the "Gerformeerde Bond."
Christ will be present where there is true faith, and where His Church is gathered. We should believe this in a much broader form than we did before. We certainly are not followers of the pluriformity doctrine when we recognize Christian faith in other people or churches. Such recognition does not alter the fact that we must cooperate to strive for unity with everyone who belongs to the Church of Christ and to show this also in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Kuyper showed us that certain things may go together very well. His (too) great admiration for the Church and those who gave themselves that name, did not hinder him in his reformative efforts in the Netherlands in 1886 and 1892.
Working together in politics
Nobody will deny that there was also a change of direction in another activity. Initially, the liberated reformed organizations were very isolated. They currently are here and there open (ajar) for others. As real Kuyperians we did not only leave the existing organizations after the Liberation. We built new ones, be it then on a smaller scale. What at one time was protestant-christian, became now exclusively liberated-reformed. That's how the A.R. Party was replaced by G.P.V. An increasing deterioration in Christian Holland drove many nonliberated in the direction of G.P.V. which, in spite of its small size, showed a remarkable presence in the Dutch political scene. Since it had a "closed" membership, these sympathizers could not become full members. To solve this problem, a parallel party was formed under the name Nationaal Evangelisch Verband, which did not differ a word in it's political platform from G.P.V. It was impossible, however, to form a joint list of candidates for our national elections. What I mentioned earlier about the liberated-reformed church opinion dominated the thinking about a possible cooperation in the political arena. It did not take much guesswork to forecast the outcome. The members of the N.E.V. became tired of being used as servants, and in 1972 the N.E.V. was dissolved. A few years later (1975) the R.P.F. (Reformatorische Partij) was founded. I have never experienced a clearer failure of the liberated churchvision than in its application in the political arena. The founding of the R.P.F., with a political program that naturally was essential similar to that of the G.P.V., would have been totally redundant if the G.P.V. had opened its doors for membership a bit wider. I have often asked myself if the confession with respect to the true Church had to create a division of those who in the spirit of Groen van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Colijn, Schouten and Jongeling were actively involved in Christian politics. Nobody has ever been able to make that clear to me.
The result of the recently held parliamentary elections were again very meaningful for the G.P.V. While we had expected, on political grounds, that the G.P.V. rather than the R.P.F. would gain considerably, the opposite happened. The novice R.P.F. candidate Leen van Dijke had more support than the highly acclaimed political expert Gert Schutte, who ran for the G.P.V. The G.P.V. did not win a third seat, where the R.P.F. went from 1 to 3 seats. It is quite clear why this happened. The (relatively) closed character of the G.P.V. took care of this.
The process of openness will succeed where possible without any confessional concessions to achieve mutual goals. It will never really work, however, if one avoids the foundation -the vision of the Church.
Something has come up which was unthinkable five years ago. We do not possess one opinion-based church weekly (De Reformatie), but have now a choice of four, in addition to Nederlands Dagblad. Is this a plus or minus? I think the answer is both. The plus side is that not everything needs the approval of one editorial committee. That requirement had discouraged a number of people from writing, and the others who did write took the chance that their submissions were printed with a lot of comments. We have often been very tough, not to others, but also to ourselves, in spite of many statements that we did not deal with the people but with their opinions. It requires no special talent to discuss a certain issue (we always have enough arguments), but the ethical aspects are very difficult. I have found, however, a considerably milder climate since we have these four magazines. Nederlands Dagblad experienced most of its criticism with the massive changes it had sustained. Shortly after its start-up, the magazine Bij de Tijd was criticized for a lack of a proper approach to our confessions. The confessions were not questioned at all, but their application did not appear to be present in the magazine. As a result of this, the editors came up with an appropriate statement, aided by a critic who had pointed out that among us most of our discussions were based on the confessions. A renewed effort is in place now, with a declaration that everyone may hold the editors to the reformed confession.
The start of Reformanda was considered to be totally redundant by de Reformatie. It was rather peculiar that some of those who were of that opinion, very quickly changed their support to their own paper Nader bekeken, apparently dissatisfied with the internal policies of de Reformatie.
We developed a fairly good idea in the meantime about the direction of three out of these four magazines. Reformanda defends the old positions which I earlier in my presentation opposed. Nader bekeken is doing the same thing, but in a friendlier way. Bij de Tijd draws the attention to issues which, in their opinion, need coverage - for example, personal faith and the development of faith, bible study, our relations with children, and certain changes in the church.
In my opinion de Reformatie will have a hard time to find its way in the middle of these weeklies. The oldest magazine will have to regain its position by considerable renewal. I stated earlier that the presence of four weeklies is not only a loss for us. This is not to say, however, that it is only a gain. Let me assume that we may attack one another less fiercely because we become aware that no one has a monopoly in church affairs any more. But we still fight. There is a difference of views, otherwise we would not need four magazines. This may lead to divisions of certain groups and damage the unity to which we as brothers and sisters are called by Christ. There will be an awful responsibility upon the shoulders of these editors to listen to each other, to take everyone seriously and to make an effort to supplement rather than fight the others.
When I am asked to respond to the overall situation, after fifty years of liberation, then I will thank God for the church community in which he allows us to live. A person who criticizes endlessly would show that he does not realize he is talking about a church community where unity is much more apparent than division. There is not, in my opinion, another church community which is as united as we are. May I point out the sound preaching? We may have good or bad sermons. However, I do not look for the good sermon in the direction of one magazine or for the lesser or bad one in the direction of the other one. It would be rather sad if we were to keep a minister away from our pulpit because of the company he keeps.
We can also be happy that we live in a church where we are kept awake. I realize that some of us would like to
keep everything "the way it was," because it appears so safe. It may look that way, but it's not, really! It would be nice if those who want to keep the old traditions would meet those who prefer renewal and notice that renewal is not destructive to the foundations of our church life. We are reformed and should desire to remain that way. We may address one another in the message of Holy Scriptures and in the way we confess it in our three forms of unity. And within these parameters we do need a lot of changes, and we should begin with ourselves. Because also Bij de Tijd wants to work on changes and renewal within this framework, I accepted with pleasure the invitation to write an article about the Liberation.
Dr. J. Douma is professor of Ethics at the Theological University (Broederwea), Kampen, the Netherlands.