The 19th Century Confessional Struggle in the Dutch Churches

It is an undeniable fact that we live in times in which old problems concerning the character of the confessional standards of the Church and the churches are revived or repeated with new strength.

Old problems! – for since the days of Semi-Arians and the Arminians these problems have never been absent; but in a new form, for our time presents its own confessional pattern. I need only refer to the following:

a. the intensified comparative studies of the different confessions,1

b. the ecumenical situation which has raised the question of the import of a basis-formula,

c. the framing of new confessions and their relation to older ones (d. the Basis of Union of the United Church of Canada2 and the Proposed Confession of 1967 of the United Presbyterian Church of America3), and

d. the situation in the Reformed (Gereformeerde ) churches in the Netherlands in which increasingly the distinction is made between the wording of the creeds and the “deepest intention of the creeds.”4

In the former century the character of the Creeds and the obligations of the subscription to them were not only studied more than once, but also, experimentally tested. History has shown the consequences of creedal laxity and creedal strictness. In Germany many heresies sounded forth from many professorial chairs, and Paul de Lagarde exclaimed: “There is no son of the second half of the 19th century who can accept the world-view of the Heidelberg-Catechism.”5 In several cases the Lutheran churches managed to maintain their orthodoxy;6 but at the turn of the century Harnack launched his attack against the Apostles’ Creed. Thereupon H . Cremer reacted in the following paradoxical words: “No church can exercise a greater toleration than that of abiding by the Creed; the abandoning of the Creed is the decisive step to the despotism of intolerance.”7

In England there was always a variety of interpretation of the Thirty-nine Articles; John Henry Newman stretched this elasticity so far in his famous Tract No. 90 as to advocate an interpretation congruous with the decrees of Trent, and when his position was condemned, he turned to the R. C. church. By 1860 very few people could maintain without hesitation that a questioning of one or two of the Thirty-nine Articles was equivalent to a subversion of the faith.8 Since 1865 the clergy have been required only to affirm that the doctrine of the Church of England as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles is agreeable to the Word of God, and to undertake not to teach in contradiction of them, instead of giving a more particular subscription as before.9

The history of the Reformed churches in France in the 19th century is marked by conflicts on the authority of the Confession. Since the “Reveil” there was growing opposition against liberalism in the church and when the Synod of Paris (1848) refused to take a definite confessional position, the well known preacher F. Monod founded the Union of Evangelical churches of France. Although the Reformed church in its Synod of 1872 returned to the Gallican Confession, its authority was constantly disputed and the influence of liberalism increased.

I might add some remarks on the situation in Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, Scotland and America; the purpose of the present essay is, however, to present an outline of the development of confessional attachment in the Netherlands, because we find in it a kind of cross-section of confessional attitudes in this period.

The situation in 1816 (the quia-qualenus-dislinction)

After having been the privileged state-church for about two ages the Dutch Reformed church had been dethroned in the period of the Revolution. A decree of 1796, confirmed in the Constitution of 1798, had proclaimed the equality of all existing religious communities and had accepted the principle of separation of church and state. In 1813 the prince of Orange returned to became constitutional king in 1814. He had been ruler in some smaller German countries and adopted a paternal attitude toward his people, that of an enlightened monarch. He now wanted to rule not only the state of the Netherlands as a God-given sovereign, but also to settle the matters of the church in, what he considered to be, the right way. Thereby he made extensive use of the services of the secretary of state Janssen. The result was that the freedom of the Dutch Reformed church was taken away in 1816 by the introduction of an enforced church-law (called “Reglement” or Regulation), which substituted for the old synodical system of church-polity, marked by delegation of members via the classes by the consistories, a governmental system in which the members of General Synod were appointed by the king.

By this arrangement the king aimed at a double goal.

The first goal would have been called in our own time an ecumenical one. He attempted to combine as many of his Protestant subjects as possible in one church, regardless of their theological opinions.

His second goal was that of one administration, rather than one stated doctrine in the church. He may have hoped that unity in doctrine would grow gradually, but for the time being he wished that all should be tolerated. Therefore he introduced a new subscription-formula, according to which the candidates 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 deliberately chosen. What did: “in accordance with the Word of God” mean? Did it mean: because (quia) it agrees with the Word of God? or did it mean: in as far as (quatenus) it agrees with the Word of God? The last and broader sense was apparently meant by the framers. The result was the toleration of all kinds of theology and winds of doctrine in the Dutch Reformed churches since 1816. Freedom of doctrine opened the doors to every radical opinion, a freedom detrimental to the faith of the thousands who did not have the weapons to defend themselves against the subtleties of the time.

The situation in 1834

The first great Secession from the State-church started in 1834. Its pioneer was tile Rev. Hendrik de Cock of Ulrum, and among its first leaders were the future American ministers Scholte and Van RaaIte. None of them seceded for the sake of secession, in an I-am-holier-than-thou attitude. De Cock was first suspended, then deposed from office, thereupon suspended again, and during all this time he stayed in the church and appealed to the higher assemblies. Scholte was suspended and Van Raalte not admitted to the ministry. In all the procedures against them and the other fathers of the Secession the question of the functioning of the standards of the church was of main importance.

The situation in the Reformed church of that time allowed all kinds of doctrine to he proclaimed from the pulpits—the 18th century rationalism and moralism and also the modern theology of that time, called the Groningen-theology, marked by Arianism and Pelagianism. De Cock protested against these heresies and wrote these words in his appeal to Synod, “Remember, reverend gentlemen, the splendid and unanimous testimony of the Synod of Dort; 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.”

Scholte declared himself willing to return immediately to the Reformed State-church, if it would “abandon all the doctrines conflicting with the Word of God and the Forms of Unity founded on it.” And when candidate Van Raalte was examined he said that he was willing to accept all the rules of the church, supposing that they would contain nothing against the Forms of Unity.

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. The first Christian Reformed Churches started on a confessional basis which left no room for ambiguities.

The situation in 1870

Within the scope of this essay it is impossible to describe all the confessional, semi-confessional and anti-confessional attitudes in the Dutch Reformed churches of the 19th century, following the quiaquatenus-distinction of 1816. We refer only to the two main theological schools during the second half of that century, after the decline of the afore-mentioned Groningen theology. Dominant was the theology of the father of Dutch Modernism, J. H. Scholten, who in his famous work The doctrine of the Reformed church distinguished between the principles and the letter of the Confessions, and, framing those principles in a quite new way, did away with the letter. The results of this naked Modernism soon appeared in the pulpits. In 1856 one of the Reformed ministers of The Hague, Dr. Zaalberg, published two sermons in which he denied the Reformed doctrine of atonement, after having repudiated in a formal publication the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ and original sin.10 With strong indignation the ideas of Dr. Zaalberg were exposed and criticized by dr. J. J. Van Toorenenbergen, at that time a friend of the young Dr. Abraham Kuyper. But Van Toorenenbergen was influenced by the second influential mainstream of Dutch theology in those years, the Ethical theology (also called the Irenic Theology, a Dutch brand of the German mediating theology, influenced by the “Reveil,” Schleiermacher and Vinet). This theology did not want the complete freedom of the modernists, because its representatives saw that thus they lost not only some old forms and terms, but also the heart of the Confession. Neither did they want a conservatism that only confessed in the same words and patterns of thought as the fathers hud done. In 1868 Van Toorenenbergen delivered an address at the minister’s conference of that year on the topic: “What do we learn from the oldest history of the Confessions of the Dutch Reformed Church on the profitable use of those writings?” In this address Van Toorenenbergen made the distinction between “substance” and “letter” of the Confessions. This distinction differed from that of Scholten in this way, that it did not speak of the principles of the Confession, but of its substance. Van Toorenenbergen did not want to substitute some modern principles for the evident orthodox meaning of the words; he aimed to maintain the substance, which he described in the following words: “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.

At this conference Kuyper opposed Van Toorenenbergen. Only a short time before he had been converted, and now in the lecture of his friend he was reminded again of the distinction of his teacher Scholten, which had opened the door to every wind of doctrine, He blamed Van Toorenenbergen for his “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.” He added that the Confession is not unchangeable, but that the making of a change is the prerogative of the synod of the church. And he promised to develop his ideas at a following Conference. This he did in 1870 speaking on: The confession of the church.

It was very remarkable that he made a step in the direction of Van Toorenenbergen in this speech, making the distinction between the substance of the confession and its elaboration (“uitwerking”). He referred to Voetius who had spoken of three cases of alteration of the Confession, namely, a. improvement of expressions; b. extension of the confessed truth and c. rejection of new heresies. But 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 office-bearers were bound to the words and not to a certain substance which they chose for themselves.

In answering the question whether an officebearer cannot hold his office any longer if he does not agree with a minor detail of the confession, Kuyper referred to the ius discretiollis. He said that the fathcrs applicd that right in case a person had some objection against or deviated in some way from the words of the confession. That right of discretion meant that the person involved should not hide his feelings but reveal them to Synod; and the Synod should make the decision whether this personal feeling might be tolerated or not.

Apart from this right of discretion Our fathers accepted the Confession as the accurate expression of the Word of God. They chose their words in these documents with painstaking care. They distinguished indeed between articuli fundamentales and non-fundamentales, or articuli necessaria and non-necessaria; but they found the fundamental articles in their confessions and not outside of them.11

The situation in 1886

The second Secession from the Reformed church took place in 1886 (Doleantie). The leader of this movement was indisputably Abraham Kuyper, and the question of the authority of the Standards of the church played again a major role. The old quiaquatenus form which had been changed already in such a way that the future office-bearers made the promise to teach in accordance with the “spirit and essentials” of the Confession (1841), was changed again in 1883 into the promise to “promote the interests of the kingdom of God.” Kuyper was in that year an elder of the Reformed church of Amsterdam. A consistorial committee, of which he was a member, invited delegates of all Dutch consistories in order to consider the situation. The roll which was signed at that conference had the following heading: “By their subscription the undersigned profess their heartfelt agreement with the three Forms of Unity as the basis of ecclesiastical agreement, not in as far, but because they agree with the Word of God.” The delegates at this conference took the decision that their consistories should admit to the ministry of the Word only those who had expressed their agreement with the Forms of Unity; and that they should separate themselves from the synodical organization of 1816, if they would be prevented by it to honor Jesus as the King of His church in accordance with the Confession. This was the prelude to the “Doleantie.”

In 1886 the conflict began in Amsterdam. During that year and in the following years in many places churches broke with the synodical organization of 1816. These “Doleantie”—churches combined with the existing Christian Reformed churches (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.”

Our conclusion is the same as that concerning the situation in 1834: the combined Christian Reformed churches in the Netherlands started on a confessional basis which left no room for ambiguities.

The seriousness of Kuyper’s confessional attitude appeared clearly in 1896 at the synod of Middelburg, one of the first synods held after the union of 1892. With some others he submitted a gravamen against certain expressions in art. XXXVI of the Belgic Confession. Earlier Kuyper had already openly declared that he had objections to the words: “and thus may remove and prevent idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed.” But at that time there had been no synod willing to take a decision on any point of doctrine. Now there was again a “spiritual synod” (as Kuyper called it). A study-committee was appointed, which reported to the synod of Utrecht (1905). In this synod the rule was repeated that the words of the Confession should be understood as they were evidently meant by their framers. And thereupon the disputed words were removed from the Confession.

1. Cf. the literature mentioned by W. Niesel in The Gospel and the Churches. 1962. pp. 361–377.

2. “…approximate and out of date in important respects” (S. Crydale. The changing Church in Canada. 1965. p. XII)

3. “The whole mentality of the new Confession is different from the old one (the Westminster). Its intention is probably not revision but rejection.” (John H. Gerstner in Christianity Today, Dec. 3, 1965, p. 11)

4. Cp. L.B. Smedes on G.C. Berkouwer in: Creative minds in contemporary theology, 1966, p. 68.

5. Walter Nigg: Geschichte des religiosen Liberalismus, 1937, p. 287.

6. e.g. the deposition of G.C. Bartholdi in 1854, of C. Schrempf in 1891, and of H. Weingart in 1898.

7. H. Cremer: Zum Kampf um das Apostolikum. 1893. p. 54.

8. A.O.J. Cockshut: Anglican Attitudes, 1959, p. 86.

9. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 1958. p. 1349.

10. J. C. Rullmann : De Strijd voor Kerkherstel (3), 1928. pp. 103, 104. I must refrain from quoting the many Dutch works on 19th century church-history. The works of Rullmann abound in material, and the work of dr. W. Volger Om de Vrijheid der Kerk, is very valuable.

11. Cf. the chapter on the historical evaluation of the Confession in my: Abraham Kuyper au kerkhiatoricus, 1945. pp. 87–99.