Listen To Article
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.
And then there’s the story of B.K. Kuiper too.
How different was the RCA, at least in the East, when in 1928 it celebrated its 300th anniversary with a fancy banquet in a swanky Manhattan hotel, and the speaker was Frank Kellog (of the Kellog-Briand Pact), promising, yes, an end to war as an instrument of national policy. Perhaps just as foolish in a different way. In a year’s time everything would go bust, and four years later A. Hitler would come to power in Germany. I wonder if we are living in such a pivotal time ourselves? In the RCA now we think we can ignore the larger culture and theology in general just by planting new churches. That’s what our General Synod will be about.
As B.K. Kuiper’s granddaughter, I am quite familiar with his sad tale. His conflict with Synod was not helped by the fact that his brother, Rev. R.B. Kuiper, was married to the sister of Ralph Janssens, and much of the hostility against Ralph spilled over onto B.K.’s situation. Of course, B.K. was every bit as flinty as Janssens. Family lore says B.K. wrote a conciliatory reply to Synod, even acknowledging his error in attending that movie, BUT when he actually stood before Synod he jettisoned that speech and instead told the assembled brethren that they were whited sepulchers.
A most instructive precedent, told with panache. Can the CRC rise above the temptation to re-enact the worst moments of its history? Pray that it will.
Having been recently cashiered myself, I hope I am at least somewhat less proud and flinty. Excellent as always Jim.
Stanley Wiersma used to say that it wasn’t fair that Foppe Ten Hoor never got a dormitory named after him on the Knollcrest campus. Work it out. The other tragedy is how brilliant Hoeksema could be. His published sermons on the Catechism were commanding, with a deep knowledge of the Patristics. I think he sensed some of the weaknesses of Kuyper, but was unable to propose a better path.
Stan was my neighbor in EASTOWN and stayed long after the college left for greener pastures. He and Irene are in my pantheon. Stan always was able to stand back in any situation, reflect and then draw a compelling conclusion expressed in beautiful declarative sentences. I miss him.
Fascinating. Thank you for this perspective, both chilling and instructive.
Thanks for your historical perspective on our current situation in the CRC. I am deeply troubled by the news that non delegates will not be allowed to be present for the discussion and debate on the Human Sexuality Report. One has to wonder what they fear.
This is very thought provoking and interesting. I enjoyed it immensely. As a person raised in the CRC, and becoming an RCA member in young adulthood (and even becoming an ordained minister) I am always fascinated with these pieces of history. Thank you.
As always from Jim Bratt, wonderfully written and keenly perceptive. Here’s a nice apologia for the study of history!
The parallels to today are scary if you’re a member of Neland Ave CRC. To your observations about (lack of) due process for Dr. Janssen, I can’t tell you how many claims against Neland are based upon misunderstandings of Neland’s situation created and fueled by a Banner article about Neland and social media shrapnel, not Neland’s own testimony of why it ordained a same-sex married person. Beyond Neland and to the broader issue of same sex marriage, I think it’s impossible to exaggerate how much the current tempest in the CRC is a culture war tempest merely posing as a serious hermeneutical crisis.
There is a sad legacy in the seminary where I serve of faculty turning on each other viciously. The flap over Janssen and soon Hoeksema presaged a far more vicious time 25 years later when a faculty of all of about seven people managed to fracture into camps, lobbing so many accusations and counter-accusations that the Synod sacked the lot of them. One was so broken as to end up in a mental hospital whence he never returned. And the issue was the same: if WWI put cracks in the fortress wall against the world, WWII broke the wall wide open and by 1951 the tensions were proving unbearable. The CRCNA has never figured out who it is: a world-shunning group of inward-looking pietists or a more urbane group reaching out to the world and reveling in common grace. It remains so right now. (And I learned all of THAT long ago from Jim Bratt!)
Scott (and Jim), as I’ve been reading this blog lately and listening to the different thoughts and reflections of the writers in relation to the current battles in the RCA and CRC, I’m honestly wondering if the choice is that binary. Pietists vs. progressive Kuyperians. I understand the critique of the pietists (perhaps the confessionalsts, too) And, to be fair, Jim identified the post-millennial naïveté of progressivists post-WW I. Each stream in the CRC, left to itself has its blind spots and weaknesses. All that said, in the CRC hasn’t part of our identity always been living in that tension, sorting things out between the pendulum swings? Honestly, I think we need both sides, messy as it is. Can one be, as I’ve heard Herman Bavinck characterized, “modern, yet orthodox?”
It’s a cord of three strands, or at least it was. A good chunk of the confessional/pietists departed during the 90s in the URC split. Since then we’ve seen the third strand, the American Evangelical leaning strand, try to “fill the gap” and begin to lean back in reaction to the increasingly progressive transformationalist strand. To paraphrase Professor Kirke from CS Lewis “It’s all in Zwaanstra, bless me, all in Zwaanstra, what don’t they teach them in school these days!”
Many thanks, Jim. This is one of the more compelling and tragic stories out of many in those polarizing years. How many more tragedies await us now, in a time where it seems that no Protestant group in America is immune from the social and spiritual forces that would tear us apart? There is something deeply wrong with parties espousing orthodoxies or -praxies–of the left or the right–that do not display the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I must check this with Bratt, who knows what’s so, but it seems to me that the CRC’s controversies, more frequently than not, focus on the matter of who can be in fellowship, i.e. in communion, and who should stand outside, as a matter of “discipline.” The CRC seems obsessed, historically, with boundary setting and deciding who’s in and out. So here it goes again. We just moved to north-side Chicago, and I miss my CRC home church in G.R. terribly. But I am not too sad about missing this fight. The only problem is that in one way or another, it is touching just about anywhere else we might land. God help us all.
Joel, Thanks for the reminder about displaying the fruits of the Spirit in this controversy. It’s a sad & lamentable day when one is only “right.”
Growing up, I heard stories about Herman Hoeksema because my Grandpa had been a pastor of Eastern Ave. CRC, the congregation from which Herman Hoeksema departed – taking about 3/4s of the congregation with him – about 20 years before Grandpa Huissen arrived. The wounds were apparently still raw.
Almost 100 years later, it came to light one evening that I was enjoying a lovely dinner with someone who turned out to be one of Herman Hoeksema’s granddaughters! We both knew the basic details of the story: the split, the hurt, and that our grandfathers held opposing views on the theological issues of the time.
Theological issues are important, of course. But as Professor Bratt points out, the painful casualties of culture wars, the disinformation, the gamesmanship of power over fair process – all within the context of utterly chaotic current events – haven’t changed very much. Sadly.
My dinner companions and I smiled over how quaint the old arguments seemed to us. What will future generations think looking back on this moment?
Thanks, Jim, for this great piece. If we don’t recall history, we are doomed to repeat it. I am very afraid that we are going to repeat this same dance again. Joel’s comments about our history of repeatedly needing to draw lines and boundaries to define who is “orthodox” and “in” and who is not really resonates with me as a lifelong member of the CRC. Is there a historical and cultural reason for this pattern that is unique to our denomination and heritage? Or is this just the nature of groups or at least Protestant denominations? There is an inherent fear underlying it all, as if God’s Truth would just fall apart without our vigilance. And also a strong need to be “in control”. How does our denomination begin to recognize this terrible pattern and change?