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Jeff Munroe was rather somber in this space on Monday, and so was Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell yesterday. Both were mourning the demise of nuance and trust and space for genuine discussion on the political scene and the damage that loss inflicts on community, whether in a town like Pella, Iowa or in denominations like the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America. So let me pile on with a historical precedent.
One hundred years ago this month, the Synod of the CRC cashiered the one progressive member of the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary. His name was Ralph Janssen; his alleged sin, a compound of heresy and insubordination. His real problem was becoming a token in a Dutch-American culture war, itself a miniature of a broader American turbulence born out of the great crusade to make the world safe for democracy, World War I. Oh, and all of it compounded by an influenza epidemic that puts ours in the shade. That Janssen was also proud and flinty didn’t help.
The Prosecution and the Defense
In 1918, with World War I nearing its climax, Janssen’s four colleagues on the CTS faculty brought accusations against him to the seminary’s board of trustees. His lectures in Old Testament partook of Higher Criticism, they charged. He downplayed the supernatural aspect of revelation from the angle of science and reason. He reduced the differences and accentuated the connections between Israel and its neighbors. He taught the documentary hypothesis. When the trustees backed him, the plaintiffs returned the next year only to be repulsed again, and reprimanded in the bargain. They appealed to the CRC Synod of 1920 which suspended the reprimand but not Janssen.
Next, the faculty, adding four pastors as allies, took their cause directly to the CRC pews via two brochures. One of the pastors, the up-and-coming Herman Hoeksema, heated up the charges with sweeping, incendiary prose in the denomination’s English-language magazine, The Banner, where he commanded the theology column. This generated “unrest in the churches,” the Synod quaintly observed. “Uproar” was more like it. The seminary board responded by giving Janssen a year’s leave from teaching, and eight of the CRC’s thirteen classes asked Synod to re-open the case. It did so in 1922.
Janssen used his time off to respond with brochures of his own. He cited standard Reformed authorities, including the just-deceased Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, to warrant his teaching. He complained about violations of due process. Most critically, he returned the charges of heresy — at Hoeksema first of all and at Hoeksema’s co-belligerents by association. His foes couldn’t read Scripture aright, Janssen charged, because they denied the common grace that God shed upon all people — upon Israel’s neighbors and upon those today who rightly used the methods of science and reason.
“Straws in the Wind”
There’s plenty to unpack here; I’ll stay with just three points. First, Janssen’s appeal to Kuyper accomplished little because his senior faculty opponent, Foppe M. Ten Hoor (gotta love the names), had fled the Netherlands for America to escape Kuyper’s rising influence. For his part Hoeksema loved the Kuyper of absolute divine sovereignty and exaggerated the “antithesis” that Kuyper drew between believers and the world, but he derided the notion of common grace as “worthless,” “unReformed,” “illogical,” “impossible,” and “inexplicable.” No one asked how he felt about it.
Second, Janssen had good reason to complain about due process. Some of the investigating committees did not interview him personally. All charges against him were based on student notes of his teaching, not his own acknowledged statements. Some of his opponents wound up as both judge, jury, and prosecutor in his case, and the course of events that brought him to the dock was drenched in rumor and fear.
Third, his critics could mostly charge him with the “appearance” of error, of using methods “similar” to those of modern science, of “tending implicitly” or “in effect” toward Higher Criticism. “Dr. Janssen’s instruction…perhaps unconsciously, more or less places reason above God’s Word,” they fudged. That was ominous enough in its own right but signified even more among the “many straws which tell us which way the wind blows.” The appearance of heresy, then.
Attacks and Counterattacks
“Insubordination” was easier to prove as Janssen refused to testify before the Synod in protest of its procedural errors, even though he was in the house. He therefore had the privilege of hearing Hoeksema bring the discussion to a close with an invocation from Scripture against pleas from the floor for an exercise of Christian charity: “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee?” he intoned. “I hate them with perfect hatred: they are become mine enemies.” [Psalm 139:21-22 ASV] With that, the Synod voted to remove Janssen from his post and at its next meeting, in 1924, upheld the decision with vigor.
Yet at that same 1924 Synod, Hoeksema found that the sword of enmity could cut both ways. His conservative co-belligerents had long since jettisoned him, and Janssen’s progressives turned the charge of heresy back on him for denying common grace. The assembled brethren tried to find a middle path, taking Hoeksema’s warnings against “the world” very seriously indeed but finding nonetheless that, on three points, common grace was indeed Reformed orthodoxy. How else could one explain order in society and nature? The—yes, very modest—degrees of virtue outside the church? How else could one conduct evangelism?
Doubling down, Hoeksema soon found himself out of the CRC and in the lead of his own new denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. By latest report it has all of 8,627 members, 33 churches, and four missionaries. On the other side, Janssen left academia to become a stockbroker in Chicago. The strife’s final chapter came in 1928 when the CRC unloaded against the 1920s’ “revolution in manners and mores” by condemning “worldliness” root and branch, particularly as manifest in dancing, gambling, and theater-attendance. The denomination thus entered a new era in which it would stand as a redoubtable fortress ruled by the strictest orthodoxy and legalism. That lasted into the 1960s.
Of Culture Wars and Safety
Readers can decide for themselves whether and how this episode might forecast the upcoming CRC Synod decision as to the proposal on the agenda that the woke in the land are in peril of their salvation, so far as same-sex relationships are concerned. The errors of process in this case are buried years back when the committee that has fashioned its report on human sexuality was commissioned and constrained, majority recommendations to the contrary notwithstanding. The science in the report is risible; its inflation of matters to confessional status a last-ditch stand against a generational tide in the opposite direction.
The latter point offers in my opinion the most telling connection between then and now. Contrary to popular memory, the Roaring Twenties were not all fun and flappers and lifestyle experimentation. Xenophobia and racial assaults, the Red-Scare and the Klan, were abroad in the land. Unbridled consumerism was unleashed, the phenomenon against which the 1928 Synod was perhaps making symbolic gestures of reproof.
But those of us who count ourselves as progressives should also remember that World War I was the ultimate progressive crusade. Some on the progressive side at the time — especially in and around the more-Americanized RCA — declared that the millennial day was waiting at the end of its rainbow. Cast that way, the war gained ultimate stakes; certainly, it was propagandized in terms of absolute good and evil, in the most lurid tones and at the highest pitch of passion. That genie, once unleashed, is very hard to put back in the bottle and can serve the forces of reaction as well as those of “progress,” especially once all the grand ideals have turned to dust. See 1919.
Hence the Synodical worthies’ impulse to strike hard and dig in deep against a tide that threatened to sweep away everything precious and true. Hence Ralph Janssen’s sad fate — to be a “straw in the wind” of a mighty storm. Thus also, the fate of progressive CRC congregations in the culture wars of our time?
This story is covered in more detail in chapter 8 of my Dutch Calvinism in Modern America (Eerdmans, 1984). Quotations pp. 106-07, 113.