Contending for the Faith in the Netherlands

The Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) came into existence with the reformation of the Roman Church in the 16th century. Many of its fine buildings date back to before the Reformation and are historically and architecturally of great interest. During the 19th century fidelity to the Word of God deteriorated in the Netherlands, as it did also elsewhere. All kinds of doctrine were proclaimed from the pulpit—the 18th century rationalism and moralism, and also the modern theology of that time, called the Groningen theology, marked by Arianism and Pelagianism.

In 1813 the Prince of Orange returned to Holland to become constitutional King in 1814. He wanted to combine as many of his Protestant subjects as possible in one church, regardless of their theological opinions, for the sake of national unity. So in 1816 the freedom of the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk was taken away by the introduction of an enforced church law. The King introduced a new statement of faith according to which prospective ministers declared that they accepted and believed “the doctrine included in the accepted Forms of Unity in accordance with the Word of God.” This ambiguous expression was interpreted by most candidates as allowing any kind of theological conviction.

In the uneasy years that followed 1816 faithfulness to the Gospel and a desire for fellowship, which was indeed fellowship in the Gospel, led to an alignment within the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk of those who held to the Reformed faith. Inevitably their concern for the Gospel and for the faith of thousands who did not have the weapons to defend themselves against the subtleties of the time resulted in two secessions from the original church, one in 1834 and another in 1886.

The leader of the 1834 secession was Rev. Hendrik de Cock of Ulrum. In his attempts to reform the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk he addressed these words to the Synod, “Remember, reverend gentlemen, the splendid and unanimous testimony of the Synod of Dordt; remember that the same Catechism, as much as the Confession and the Canons, is trampled down and crushed under foot as a result of the abolishment of the old form of subscription, and the almost universal interpretation of the new form of 1816; behold how since that year the majority of the pastors and teachers of our church take it for granted that they are only bound by the Forms of Unity in as far as they suppose them to agree with the Word of God; a restriction which might enable them to undersign even the Koran.” When reformation failed the first synod of the Secession churches was held in Amsterdam in 1836; and one of its first acts was the signing by all its members of the old subscription form of Dordt.

During the years that followed the 1834 secession, debate in the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk centred upon the authority and nature of Confessions of Faith. The theology of J. H. Scholten, the father of Dutch Modernism, became the dominant force at this time. In his attitude to the Belgic Confession he sought to distinguish between its principles and letter. He then framed the principles so radically that the letter was abrogated. This distinction naturally resulted in even more blatant Modernism in the pulpits of the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk.

In a reaction in the church against this, Dr. J. J. Van Toorenbergen came to the front. He had a great reverence for the old Confession and could see that Scholten’s ideas led to the loss of its very heart. However, he did not want a conservatism that only confessed in the same words and patterns of thought as the fathers had done. His solution was to distinguish between “substance” and “letter” of the Confession. He aimed to maintain the substance which he described thus: “The Confession shows us the only comfort in the acknowledgement of the misery of sin, the perfection of salvation and the thankfulness for its possession with all clarity. Therein is to be found what cannot be changed in the Confession, because it is according to the eternal gospel.” But the letter of the Confession should not bind our conscience.

This distinction failed to satisfy a great number of ministers and elders who desired the church to take an unambiguous confessional position. The leader of these men was Dr. Abraham Kuyper who had been converted after being in the ministry of the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk for some years. He accused Van Toorenbergen of subjectivism and asked him, “What is the gospel? Everyone comes with his own gospel. There is no other way than being faithful to the letter without any exception.” Kuyper spoke at a conference in 1870 and defined his own attitude to the Confessions. He was prepared to make a distinction between the substance of the Confession and its outworking or elaboration. He quoted, for example, Voetius who allowed alteration of the Confession in three ways, viz. in the improvement of expression, the extension of the confessed truth and in the rejection of new heresies. However, in his opinion the right to change the Confession belonged only to the churches themselves in their synods, and as long as those synods did not change it the officebearers were bound to the words and not to a certain substance which they chose for themselves.

Reformed theologians have always held to some such division as Kuyper states here. Dr. Machen wrote, “Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church of America is not to every word in those Standards, but only to the system of doctrine which those Standards contain.”1

Charles Hodge, a contemporary of Kuyper’s, wrote, “To adopt every proposition contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms is more than the vast majority of our ministers either do or can do. To make them profess to do it is a great sin. It hurts their consciences. It fosters a spirit of evasion and subterfuge. It forces them to take creeds in a ‘non-natural’ sense. It at once vitiates and degrades. There are few greater evils connected with establishments than the overwhelming temptations which they offer to make men profess what they do not believe. Under such strict requirements, men make light of professions, and are ready to adopt any creed which opens the door to wealth or office. The overstrict the work! over are the least faithful.”2

What if an office-bearer could not agree to a minor detail of the Confession? Kuyper referred to the fathers who allowed such a person the right of discretion. This right meant that the person involved should not hide his feelings from the Synod but that they should decide whether this personal feeling might be tolerated or not. Certainly the fathers distinguished between articuli fundamentales and non-fundamentales or articuli necessaria and non-necessaria. However, they found the fundamental articles in their Confessions and not outside of them.

It is beyond the scope of this article to trace all the struggle that followed. It is briefly chronicled in Vanden Berg’s biography of Abraham Kuyper.3 Kuyper was an amazing man with a magnificent Biblical concept of the magnitude of the Kingdom of God. In founding the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 he and some friends heroically struggled against seemingly hopeless odds. He led the secession from the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk in 1886 after all attempts at reformation had failed. They combined with the Gereformeerde Kerken (of 1834) in 1892, and the uniting synod of these churches declared in that year that they “accomplished this union on the basis of the common profession of the Three Forms of Unity.”

This denomination has been a great influence in the Netherlands in succeeding years. It totals some 800,000 members concentrated in a small country with some 12 million inhabitants. Obviously the voice of the Reformed population is something to be reckoned with in political, economic and social affairs, especially as it is expressed through a Christian press and radio as well as a political party which sends members to the law-making Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament.

The single factor chiefly responsible for the growth of the Gereformeerde Kerken, according to Professor Norman Shepherd of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, is the birth of covenant children.4 Their loyalty to the church and the cause of Christ is nurtured not only at home and by means of the weekly catechism classes through the school years, but also by means of a fully-developed system of parent-controlled Christian schools (which factor, alas, is entirely absent in our country thus far). In this kind of arrangement the Sunday school functions not so much to train the children of church members but to reach children who are otherwise wholly outside of the church.

Thus it has been through a vigilant confessional stand that this strong position has been reached. The last battle over confessional interpretation was in 1926 in the case of Dr. Geelkerken. He and others attacked the historicity of the account of the Fall in Genesis 2 and 3. At a special general synod held in Assen from January 26 to March 17, 1926, the church declared:

a. That the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and its speaking and the tree of life, according to the obvious intention of Genesis 2 and 3, are to be understood in a real or literal sense and thus as sensuously perceptible realities; and

b. That therefore the opinion of Dr. Geelkerken, that one could render disputable whether these matters or facts were sensuously perceptible realities without coming in conflict with what is confessed in Articles 4 and 5 of the Belgic Confession, must be rejected.

As a result of this decision Dr. Geelkerken was excluded from the Gereformeerde Kerken and a fair number of people left the church eventually to join the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk.

However since that time a new generation has appeared and there are indications that the church is not in an altogether healthy state. It seems that the great responsibility of confessional vigilance is becoming a burden to church leaders. Dr. Remkes Kooistra, a Canadian Christian Reformed minister, recently returned to the Netherlands and reported that “when you walk around the Netherlands you see some worried faces, and when you talk with people at the grass roots, at the base of the church you often hear them saying, ‘I don’t know whether we are going in the right direction. It is different. It is all so strange.’”5

There are many factors that give rise to this concern and uncertainty. There is the situation at the Free University of Amsterdam. As a Christian academic institution firmly based upon the Word of God and the Reformed Faith it has won our respect and gratitude. Through its example and through the teaching and writings of its staff similar institutions have been established in North America and Asia and its influence on Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Europe and North America has been considerable. Yet there are indications that it is departing from its unique Reformed position.

On Oct. 20, 1965, at the 85th anniversary celebration of the Free University an honorary degree was awarded to Martin Luther King. In doing so the Free University radically departed from its tradition of giving honorary degrees only to men who have made a definite contribution to the Calvinistic community or to internationally-distinguished Reformed scholars. It is good for Calvinists to recognise the injustice often being done to the Negro. However it must be recognised that much of Dr. King’s work is connected with the unscriptural practice of civil disobedience. His philosophy is that at times a good end may justify an evil means, “It is right to break laws if we think that they are unfair and can get publicity for a good cause by doing so.” For him civil disobedience is the violation of unjust laws that are “out of harmony with the moral law of the universe.”

Such an attitude is in direct violation of the Biblical teaching of the obligation of men to obey even the unjust laws of the State (Rom. 13:1 etc.). Only if a man is commanded to sin must he disobey the law. The disobedience which Dr. King advocates leads to anarchy and to the sort of riots that have threatened many American cities in the past year.

Certainly the awarding of such a degree by the Free University indicates a decided change of course. It might not be very significant if it were an isolated event; however it does not stand alone. In the Free University Bulletin for October, 1965, is the farewell address of Prof. R. Schippers, the retiring rector of the institution. In this he said that the people of 1965 live in a different world from those of 1880 who founded the University. Now the Free University and also the Roman Catholic University of Nijmegen were to be instrumental in the “blessed process of national reintegration.”6 He went on to say, “As far as our University is concerned it belongs more and more to the bridges toward a Christian consensus with others for whom the basis of the University, as it was formulated and interpreted in 1880, is hardly acceptable, but who wish with us to set themselves to the work of science carried out in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thus when a man is needed for a given function in the University what happens if no one holding the Reformed Faith can be found? Prof. Schippers answers thus, “Could it not be important and even very profitable if on the scientific staff there were men who do not see the functioning of the basis (of Reformed Principles) or even deny its possibility, but who can pose the most pertinent questions regarding this matter in discussion with those who proceed from the basis?” However, “it will be expected and demanded of them that they in their bearing in and outside of the school show respect for, loyalty towards and in general a sense of responsibility to our university seen in the light of its aim and task.”

Peter De Jong himself then proceeds to ask us, “Does all this not reveal that the University is changing course and what direction that change is taking? Notice the decided shift, first from a ‘Reformed’ institution towards one more broadly ‘Christian’ in which errors such as those of Roman Catholicism no longer seem to matter. And the trend does not stop there. Does it ever? It goes on toward accommodating decent unbelievers in case it seems academically expedient to do so, to reckon even with their ‘rights’ to teaching positions without being faced with ‘discrimination’ on the basis of faith, and all this in the (naive?) hope that teaching in this institution will somehow convert them or cancel the effects of their unbelief! Considering that much of the leadership of the Gereformeerde Kerken is trained in this institution, do we not begin to understand somewhat more readily the indications of change in those churches? And does not all this change conspicuously resemble that with which we are so familiar in the history of most of the older colleges and universities in the United States and the churches which depended on them for the training of their leadership?”7

The “indications of change” in the Gereformeerde Kerken from the committed Reformed position arc as follows: it is possible that the church might soon seek membership in the World Council of Churches. The World Council was organizcd in Amsterdam in 1948 and in 1949 the Gereformeerde Kerken determined to remain outside for reasons similar to those which continue to keep most of the churches connected with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod apart from the World Council. Though the Gereformeerde Kerken confirmed this position in 1952, 1955, 1957 and 1959 the Synod of 1963 concluded that the confessional basis of the World Council as revised in 1961 in New Delhi was an adequate basis for ecumenical contact and that the way in which this formula functioned in the World Council provided no decisive barrier to World Council membership. This decision has caused concern among other Reformed bodies, and churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have sent communications to the Gereformeerde Kerken urging the Synod to reject membership in the World Council.

Again in the autumn of 1967 the General Synod meeting at Lunteren decided that the church’s declaration in 1926 at Assen concerning the literal historicity of Genesis 2 and 3 is no longer binding upon the churches. While stating that it shared fully the concern of the Synod of Assen (1926) that the authority of Holy Scripture must be respected by the church it did not consider itself competent to form a judgment concerning the specific nature of the scriptural story in Genesis 2 and 3 that would be sufficiently well-established to continue to follow the exclusive way in which the Synod of Assen expressed itself on the obvious meaning of specific details of this story. The Synod reached the decision after two full days of discussion by a vote of 64 to 2 with one abstention.

Now it is proper to allow a certain latitude in the interpretation of aspects of Genesis 1 to 3, but· when the action of the Synod is seen against the backcloth of a much broader discussion of the meaning of these chapters now taking place in the Netherlands then this action is to be viewed with concern. Dr. H. M. Kuitert has recently been appointed Professor of Ethics and Theology at the Free University. He is a very gifted man; in his doctoral dissertation and other publications he has demonstrated great ability. But brilliant theologians too can fall into error. In the Oct. 22nd, 1966 issue of Centraal Weekblad we learn that he openly espouses a view of the first chapters of Genesis which leaves no room for accepting the historicity of Adam and Eve, their fall into sin and their expansion from the garden of Eden. Kuitert is of the opinion that what is related there in Genesis should not be interpreted as an objective description of genuine facts. The consequences of this view are that the series “creation—fall into sin—redemption” is not to be looked upon as a chronological order. Also at the convention of the Society of Christian Scientists of April 20, 1963, Kuitert explained Genesis 1 as an account borrowed from Babylonian mythology, and that God’s creation from the beginning was never perfect. And according to Trouw (May 13, 1966) he declared at Kampen’s School Day that one cannot say: “Because it is in the Bible it really took place.” Therefore he expressed an opinion that, for example, at the time of Joshua, Jericho did not exist.

Among many other challengers of Biblical authority in the Gereformeerde Kerken a certain Dr. J. Stellingwerff in one of the booklets in a new series called “Christian Perspective” not only denies the truth of creation but also the doctrine of everlasting punishment. He accepts the theory of annihilation. Also Dr. J. L. Koole, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Kampen Seminary, writes in Gereformeerde Weekblad (Sept. 16, 1966) that the Bible is ancient Western historiography in which one may expect certain inexactitudes. In his recent booklet Story and Fact in the Old Testament he not only accepts a modified documentary hypothesis but adopts the so-called form-critical method in the study of Scripture, acknowledging therein the presence of myths, etc.

There are many other examples that could be cited of church leaders departing from the Word of God but they make wearisome reading. In every century the same doctrines of Biblical infallibility, creation, eternal punishment, predestination, reprobation, etc., that are an offence to the natural man are always the first to be conceded by orthodox believers. It is the responsibility of each new generation to contend for the faith; we see this significantly in the Netherlands in 1834, 1886, 1926 and now 1968. How are concerned Calvinists in the Gereformeerde Kerken responding to these currents of thought?

The leading voice amongst the scholars is Dr. H. Van Riessen, Professor of Philosophy at the Free University. In two issues of the Mededelingen van de Vereniging voor Calvinistische Wijsbegeerte (December, 1966 and March, 1967) he expresses his dissatisfaction with the views of Dr. H. M. Kuitert. He asks Knitert in the Srst article how he can substantiate his views from the Scriptures. Dr. Sierd Woudstra outlines the rest of his article thus: “If Genesis 1 is only saga, then this has to he clear from the Bible itself. Van Riessen unwaveringly declares that this can not be proven from the Bible; on the contrary, from the Bible it is evident that what is recorded in Genesis actually happened. For him this testimony of the Bible is the end of an argumentation and doubt. Van Riessen shows his awareness that for some this may be no more than a rather cheap solution to an enormous problem. Very aptly he counters by referring to the words of Jesus that unless one becomes like children, one will never enter the kingdom of heaven. He confesses that his ultimate foundation is not science hut the Word of God, and he urges Kuitert to accept the same stance. As for himself, he desires to live and to die with the conviction that the Lord God does not fool us in His Word.”8

In the second article in the March, 1967, issue Van Riessen points to Kuitert’s “happy inconsistency” in accepting, for example, the resurrection of Christ as an historical fact while also acknowledging the “wrapping material” (the Scriptural stories) in which such historical facts come to us. But with such a distinction can Kuitert maintain the essentials of the gospel? He continues, “It is not sufficient to remark that in Kuitert’s opinion the Bible cannot be called any longer the Word of God. We must also look at the consequences. According to this point of view the Christian reads the Bible in the wrong way, he does not understand what he is reading, he is not able to distinguish between the wrapping material and the matter itself. Consequently he loses his confidence in God’s Word and he is able no more to apply this Word in the practice of his life. After having knocked his head once or twice against the presence of a scholar in using his texts, he is inclined to forget that the Bible is a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path. or course he will leave the Bible closed from now on and he will degrade himself to the position of a layman who only can talk in this area after a theologian has told him what to say. The fact that the Bible loses its function in the life of the Christian is one of the most frightening events of this time.”9

Not only amongst the community of scholars arc there voices of concern. Many ministers are busily engaged in a pamphlet war discussing the situation. One of the recent booklets is The Crisis in the Reformed Churches by M. J. Arntzen, minister in ‘s-Gravendeel. Arntzen argues that it is pointless to plead for mutual confidence when it is the authority of Scripture and the confessional documents that is being challenged.

Finally amongst the lay people a group has emerged similar to various groups in other denominations where there is a projected move from the Confessions of Faith. In the Cereformeerde Kerken is such a group called (literally) “Reformed Alarmed Ones in the Netherlands.” It has addressed a letter to all the consistories of the church. In this it quotes many of these statements of ministers and professors of the Gereformeerde Kerken which give rise to serious unrest and alarm concerning the maintenance of the authority of Scripture and the Confession.

The letter concludes, “Professors and ministers have solemnly declared at their entrance upon office that they believe that the doctrine contained in our Confessions agrees in all respects with the Word of God. They have promised not to teach or to write anything contrary thereto, that they will bring any possible objections against this doctrine to the attention of consistory, c1assis, or synod, that they will keep silence until the latter have made a pronouncement and will submit to their judgment, under the penalty of suspension in case they act contrary to this promise.

“We urgently beseech you, office-bearers, to draw your conclusion from the above.

“The World Council of Churches has in its midst office-bearers who deny the Christ. The World Council takes sides with the communist countries. In view of these facts we beseech you on the basis of the Word of God to oppose joining the World Council. We beseech you to do the same, just as much on the basis of God’s Word, with respect to the ascribing of the special offices to women.

“In view of all the preceding, we beseech you, office-bearers of our Gereformeerde Kerken to maintain unabridged the authority of Scripture and the Confession. Moreover, we would point you yet to the admonition of the elders in the Form for Ordination to be as watchmen over the house and city of God and to take heed to the maintenance of purity of doctrine. Therefore we also beseech you to drop all unnecessary ornamentation in the services for public worship and not to allow the preaching to degenerate into a chatty little essay of twenty minutes.”10

The tone of this letter indicates how far the situation has declined in the Netherlands. Dutch Reformed Christianity has never been renowned for its powerful evangelistic preaching; if now in its orthodoxy it departs from the Word of God how barren will its formalism become!

In writing to the Philippians Paul not only gives thanks to God for the fellowship in the gospel which he had with them, but he also prayed “that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ,” Phil 1:9 and 10. It is the sort of prayer which we as British Calvinists ought to be praying for our brethren in other lands. The reason is clear. Paul does not say that we can in our own strength bring to a successful conclusion the good work God has begun in us as individuals and as a church. It is God who both begins and completes the work (Phil. 1:6).

Therefore we ought to seek the same blessing of steadfastness in progress for the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands by prayer and supplication. Fellowship in the gospel is something in which all believers are involved—even on an international scale.

1. Presbyterian Guardian, vol. 3, No.2, p. 21.

2. Church Polity, p. 332.

3. Abraham Kuyper by Frank Vanden Berg. 1960.

4. Presbyterian Guardian, October 1965, p. 124 “The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.”

5. Church and Nation, July 1966.

6. Translation of this and the following by Peter De Jong.

7. Torch and Trumpet, February 1967, “Whither the from Free University?”

8. Torch and Trumpet, March 1967, “A fine voice from the Free University.”

9. L. Praasma’s translation, Church and Nation, 10 October, 1967.

10. Translation by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema, The Standard Bearer, May 1, 1967, “Liberalism in the Netherlands.”


Presbyterian Guardian – October 10, 1965, “The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.”

Church and Nation – October 10, 1967, “Van Riessen on Kuitert.”

The Standard Bearer – October 15, 1966, “Winds of Doctrine from the Netherlands.”

Torch and Trumpet – February 1966, “The Free and Dr. King”; September 1966, “The 19th Century Confessional Struggle in the Dutch Churches”; February 1967, “Whither the Free University?”; March 1967, “A find voice from the Free University”; October 1967, “‘New’ views of Scripture.”

Reformed Ecumenical Synod News Exchange.

Rev. Geoffrey Thomas is the minister of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberyswyth, Wales.

This article first appeared in The Banner of Truth, April, 1968. With permission from the editor, lain Murray, we present it to the readers of TORCH AND TRUMPET as an indication of widespread concern over theological developments among our brethren in the Netherlands.