The Liberation of 1944 - By Dr. J. De Jong

From the Clarion Volume 43, No. 15/16 July 29, 1994

A Curtain of Inevitability?

Looking Back at the liberation of 1944

Fifty years ago

As we begin to enjoy the quieter days of summer, we can only be struck by the marked contrast between the summer of 1994 and the summer of 1944, fifty years ago. That was a summer of the severest tension, both in political and in ecclesiastical life. D-Day took place on June 6, 1944, and soon the allied troops were combing all of northwestern Europe. Slowly but surely the liberation spread from town to town.

In church life the encroaching power of hierarchy continued unabated. Dr. K. Schilder was suspended in March 23, 1944. On July 26, Dr. S. Greijdanus was suspended for three months. Then on Aug 3, Schilder was deposed as Professor of Theology at the seminary in Kampen, and as minister of the Word. And all this time, Schilder had been in hiding (dived under, as they said) because of a publication ban on his church paper, De Reformatie.

Then the breakthrough came! On August 11, a meeting was held in the Lutheran Church of The Hague, and there the Act of Liberation and Return was read. This Act was to be supplied to various consistories and used by them as the testimony of defence for their act of secession. The key argument of this defence was that no other recourse was left open for the churches wishing to remain faithful to the Scriptures, confession and the adopted church order but to secede. The forces of hierarchy had become so relentless and so all-pervasive that there was no other way out.

Anyone looking back at this period can only be amazed at the complex mix of factors that led to the Liberation. Could it not have been prevented? Or was it unavoidable? As sons and daughters of the Liberation we can only confess that in a critical hour, God led His church out of the darkness of hierarchy and tyranny to light of freedom in fellowship of His word. No one planned this event, no one organized it, or developed a strategy in order to bring it about. Here, indeed, one can only point to the hand of God. He was present, for the safety and the wellbeing of His church!

The synodicals

It is remarkable to read recent comments of leading synodical figures on the liberation. In his autobiographical reflections, Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, who was chairman of the Synod that suspended and deposed Schilder, asks the question: How could this have happened? [1] He speaks about a certain feeling of powerlessness that seemed to set in as the meetings continued throughout the years from 1942 on. He recalls how he was lecturing in America when the news reached him concerning Schilder's death in 1952. For him this represented the close of a chapter in his life. He says that it seemed to him as if a curtain fell, and a growing consciousness of the irrevocable set in.

Similar sentiments are expressed by another synodical spokesman, Rev. E. Overeem. As he puts it, polarization led to the formation of hostile camps that were no longer able to communicate with each other.[2] The climate became totally poisoned. But, says Overeem, we must blame the synod most of all. It let matters get out of hand, and it was not able to stay on top of the conflict. The forces of division were too powerful, and the wheels of strife were moving too fast.

Why liberation?

What are we to make of these seemingly penitent and somewhat melancholy reflections? Can we really speak of inevitable forces, and of a conflict that had become unmanageable? We can judge these comments by forming a quick overview of what happened. We do not intend to cover all the dates and events leading to the liberation, but simply wish to obtain a global picture. The danger of a picture like this is that it can be too simplistic; the benefit, however, is that it allows one to weigh different aspects of the conflict in a certain frame of reference.

Here the thesis of Drs. H. Veldman can be of great help for us. Veldman, a teacher at the high school level, has recently written a detailed overview of the period surrounding the Liberation, as background for a series of lectures entitled "From Yesterday to Tomorrow." [3] His position is that there were three parties in the church in the period leading up to the Liberation. The dynamics of the interaction between these "parties" led to the Liberation of 1944.

How are the three parties to be identified? First, there was a strongly conservative party. These were the leading theologians and men of power in the church, as for example, H.H. Kuyper, V. Hepp, A.D.R. Polman, J. Ridderbos, and others. They defended a Kuyperian orthodoxy. In fact, the distinctions of Kuyper's system were more important for them than the confessions. For example, in the pursuit of promoting the principles of Kuyper's Calvinism on an international level, Hepp was rather disparaging in his view of the Reformed confessions. For him they were only ecclesiastical confessions, and could not serve to unite Reformed churches of many different backgrounds.

The second party in the church at the time was a younger group of ministers and authors who promoted a new modernism. They felt that the confessions, as historical documents, did not serve the need of the time. They were in favour of reformulating the confessions and so adapting them to the contemporary situation. This movement ' called the "movement of the young ,men," pushed for a host of changes in church life in all areas: liturgy, confes~ sion, church practice, and mission. The central aim of the "young men" was to move the Reformed church out of what they saw as an internalizing shell, and bring it into contact and interaction with the universal Protestant Church. The hallmark of this group was progressive liberalism.

Then a third reformatory group formed, that returned to the teaching of Scripture and the confession. This group, led by K. Schilder and others, built on the abundance of new exegetical work that came out in the churches in the twenties and thirties. On the basis of this new exegetical work, some of the old established scholastic distinctions of Kuyperianism were criticized. Yet this was done for the most part in a sympathetic frame of reference. Schilder, for example, did not want to dispense with Kuyper, but only proposed marginal corrections, while retaining many elements of his Reformed world and life view. And these corrections were driven by a new understanding of the Scriptures, and by a return to, and a closer understanding of, the confessions.

What led to the Reformation of 1944? Veldman's thesis is: The first group decided to expel the third group, and in its strategy it found support from the second group. Later this second group, as the "laughing third party," walked away with the spoils. They became the leaders in the synodical Reformed churches, while the old guard was totally out-manoeuvred.

On the whole, this is an accurate description concerning what actually happened at the time of the Liberation. One notices immediately that it contrasts markedly with the position of Overeem and Berkouwer. They speak of forces beyond human control. But Veldman puts both the Kuyperians and the progressive "young men" in the driver's seat. The responsibility for the schism lies with them - each according to the role they played. And indeed, as Veldman has it, the progressives come out the worst as the "1aughing third party."

Now while Veldman is generally correct in his overview of what happened, there are to my mind some elements in the dynamics leading to the Liberation that are more complex than his thesis suggests, and these dynamics serve to explain the apparent feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness expressed by figures like Berkouwer and Overeem. A review of some of these elements will clarify what I mean.

Reformational thrust

The first element in the dynamics leading to the Liberation is the reformatory movement of the thirties, (Veldman's third group). This was a broadly based movement, one which in many respects was made up of mixed voices. On the whole it represented a sensibility of dissatisfaction with the rationalistically tinted distinctions of Kuyperianism. And it also included a component that uncovered new riches in the Scriptures.

The movement was anti-scholastic, and anti-rationalistic. However, interspersed with it were spiritualistic and Biblisitic tendencies. The movement surrounding A. Janse of Biggekerke, for example, showed some of these overtones.

This group grew in recognition and influence throughout the thirties. It was represented in the periodical De Re formatie, which gained a steady increase in readership as the years progressed. The hallmark of this group was also a confessional integrity in opposition to the rising influence of Barthianism among the leading theologians of the Netherlands Reformed Church (the State Church ), e.g. Haitjerna, and Noordmans.

The conservative backlash

As the reformatory movement of the thirties gained momentum, the stanch and towering bulwark of conservative Kuyperianism began to react. The reaction of this party (Veldman's Group One) was both defensive and offensive. The defensive reaction lacked any solid footing, because it was not confessionally qualified. The old guard simply took flight in antiquated Kuyperian concepts and distinctions. Offensively, this party also did a great deal of damage to itself, since it resorted to exaggeration, innuendo and scare tactics. And over time the attacks became personal. Without mentioning names, Hepp maligned both Schilder and the leading spokesmen of the Calvinistic reformational philosophy, Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd. H.H. Kuyper was particularly harsh in his treatment of Schilder. Rather than deal with issues, the old guard resorted to discrediting leading figures in the reformational movement, and painting them as suspect figures in the church.

As the conflict deepened, this party also resorted to violent distortions of the real state of affairs. They used the techniques of hysterics and exaggeration in order to incite opinion against the rising reformatory thinking. And they began to mobilize the ecclesiastical machinery against their opponents.[4]

A laughing third party?

And the progressives? 1 do not think that they joined in with the Kuyperian caste as a potential 1aughing third party" about to run away with the spoils. 1 do not believe the progressives employed a Mivide and conquer" strategy. Some were aligned with the reformatory movement, (Berkouwer!) and only in later stages did they align themselves with the old guard; others shielded themselves behind the old guard but were never in the position of forming a power bloc of their own. As the conflict developed, all these groups - the various progressives and the conservative ruling caste - came closer together. That happened even though the old Kuyperian guard had voiced a decisive No! to liberalism and progressive ideas in the previous decade. The conservative Kuyperian leaders formed a strong bulwark against liberal thinking, and solidified their position after the suspension of Rev. J. B. Netelenbos (1920) and Rev. J. Geelkerken (1926), both of whom championed progressive sentiments in the churches.

How did these two groups meet each other in the heat of the battle leading to the Liberation? With all their differences, they had one common ground. The Kuyperian defense was not based on the confession. Indeed, it tried to oppose the confessionally based reformatory party, and so increasingly distanced itself from sound confessional thinking. It was a flight into conservatism, with a loose connection to the confession. And the progressives, too, championed a loose connection to the confession. Thus, with all their differences both parties adopted an essentially non-confessional standpoint, and on this basis and only this basis - they formed a united front against the rising reformatory movement.

Other factors

As the conflict unfolded, other factors contributed to the dynamics leading to the Liberation. Perhaps the most significant was the war; it created a whole new situation, and perhaps also contributed to a general climate of tension and fear. The Kuyperian party certainly tried to capitalize on the war for its own cause. They as well as anyone knew that communications were difficult, paper was scarce, and leading officers and church men were underground or in prison. For them it was an ideal time to root out what they saw as an infection in the life of the church. And indeed, the means of defense on the part of the reformational movement were meagre.

Another factor of significance was the drive to radicalization in the conflict. The use of hysterics and scare tactics served to create a climate of suspicion. And it was not long before the suspicion led to a mood of absolute intolerance. At a certain point in the conflict the promoters of hierarchy settled into a relentless determination to remove what they saw as a bad leaven in the Reformed lump. At a certain point this drive to radicalization crossed a line after which there was no turning back, and this line was the collective unwillingness to seek - much less reach - a consensus to resolve matters communally for the sake of the unity of the church.

Coupled with this drive to radicalization was the anomalous and rather abrupt adoption of the new church polity, one which radically dispensed with the church polity of the Doleantie. First championed by H.H. Kuyper, it soon won adherents in many quarters, and became the primary ecclesiastical tool used to effect and impose the doctrinal sentiments of the Kuyperian old guard.

A third factor was the personality of one figure in particular, namely, Dr. K. Schilder. Schilder never wanted a conflict surrounding his person, and 1 believe he would have run miles to avoid anything like that. He never wanted the Liberation to be seen as his work or the Reformed Churches (Liberated) as a group of churches which represented in particular his way of thinking. But the fact remains that he was the central player in the conflict on the reformatory side. Why this is so is a point we cannot deal with here. But especially in the final stages of the conflict leading to the Liberation attention came to be increasingly focussed on the person of Prof. K. Schilder. For any outsider to the conflict, Liberated or otherwise, this is perhaps one of the saddest sides to the whole episode. And Berkouwer's personal reflections cannot conceal his love-hate relationship with the impact and work of Schilder. In fact, nothing can conceal the fact that one major component of the conflict concerned an attempt to silence Schilder, and to minimize - if not extinguish - his influence in the churches.


Can we really say that the Liberation was inevitable? That there was no recourse but to follow this route? This, too, is a caricature. For all his expressions of powerlessness, Berkouwer cannot deny that he was a major player in the drama leading to the Liberation.

Whether he himself saw all the ramifications of his position is another question. But who can brush aside his own responsibility by referring to a feeling of powerlessness? As chairman of a synod, one cannot easily convince others that he is in a powerless position.

The trajectory of guilt

Many of our readers know that since the Liberation the Synodical churches have gone through what might be called a trajectory of guilt. It started with the "Replacement Formula" of 1946, an attempt to soften the harsh doctrinal binding of the Synod of 1943. It returned again in 1959, when the whole Replacement Formula was set aside. And the guilt factor arose again in 1988, when Berkouwer personally expressed his regret about his role in the conflict, a statement of guilt which was soon thereafter echoed by the Synod of Almere in 1988.

Yet this whole trajectory of guilt lacks the tone of genuine sorrow and repentance. For it takes its standpoint in two things: first, in the assertion of shared guilt - which only clouds the issues - and second, in the implicit conviction that the Kuyperian view still is the only correct view. In other words, this expression of guilt is not a true return to the confession or to the Scriptures. Rather, it represents the lament of the progressive party in their alignment with the intolerant tactics of the Kuyperian old guard.

Veldman's thesis is correct to this extent that the old guard was completely outmanouvered. In fact, however, it outmanouvered itself. For its defense mechanism - resorting to old Kuyperian categories - was completely out of touch with the mood of the time. The progressives knew the mood of the day! And they capitalized on that mood! This was the mood of relativism, and a humanistically-determined idea of toleration. This soon became the dominant climate in the synodical churches, and the resulting theological liberalism and relativism found its chief representatives in men like Harry Kuitert and Herman Wiersenga.

Why the trajectory of guilt? Because, try as it might, this progressive party cannot undo its blood alliance with the ruthless force of the ruling caste of the Synod of 1943 Utrecht. Even though the progressives, had and still have an inner aversion to the scholasticism of the old guard, they could not escape their solidarity with scholastic Kuyperianism in forming a united front against the reformatory movement of the thirties. They would like to free themselves from the intolerance of the conservative caste hence, they keep trying to wash their hands with expressions of guilt. But they do not want to break their alliance with the confessional relativism initiated by the old guard. As such they are locked in what looks like an un ending trajectory, because the door to true reconciliation - repentance and forgiveness - is ignored.

Veni Creator Spiritus

Berkouwer ends his personal reflections with an expression of hope; however, the expression is rather lame. It amounts to no more than the old prayer of the early Church: Come Holy Spirit! For him, this is the only way that the cloud of inevitability can be removed.

But children of the Liberation can only have a different answer. How can one break the yoke of apparent fate? How do we remove the curtain of the inevitable? How do we stop resting in the facts as if they are irrevocable? We should not pray for the Spirit to come, but should open our hearts to the Spirit that is present! And He points repeatedly to the only way of reconciliation: repentance and admission of guilt, that is, an admission of guilt that is radical and comprehensive. Only then can one break the circle of hopelessness and find new unity with those who, now divided, were once of one house.

And we who have been set free must eschew every form of triumphalism. We were freed from hierarchy only by the grace of God! We are called in our time to build on the struggles of the past. Here many of us may be found wanting, because we hardly know what the Liberation was all about. Fifty years is only a couple of generations. Do we, as sons and daughters of the Liberation, show the gratitude God requires by recounting His deeds to our children, and acknowledging His guidance in the history of His church. Only when we build on the past can we stand in the present, and live with hope and confidence in the future!


[1] G.C. Berkouwer, Zoeken en Vinden. Herinneringen en ervaringen (Kampen: Kok, 1989), pp. 313 ff.

[2] E. Overeem, "Achtergronden van een kerkscheuring" in D. Th. Kuiper, et. al. (ed.) Jaarboek voor de geschiendenis van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Kam pen: Kok, 1992), pp. 167-196.

[3] H. Veldman, "De Gereformeerde Kerken in de twintigste eeuw" Billage behorende bij De Reformatie Vol. 68 (1993) #48. The series continues in Vol. 69, (1993) #6 Vol. 69 (1994) #16 and Vol. 69 (1994) #25.

[4] Overeem, p. 168.