The Synodical Decisions of 1924 on Common Grace

The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, which met in Kalamazoo from June 18 to July 8, 1924, will always be remembered for its famous three points—the decisions on common grace. However, the Synod of 1924 was not a common synod. It was the Synod which rejected an overture from Classis Hackensack to print the Acts of Synod in the English language, and therefore we must translate the common grace decisions today. (On the other hand, the Synod did accept, “met dankbaarheid”, an invitation from the three Kalamazoo congregations to take an “auto ride” through the city!)

The Synod of 1924 also took far-reaching action concerning Calvin Theological Seminary. Consideration was given to the question of shifting Professors Volbeda and Berkhof to other departments. While Dr. C. Bouma and Dr. M. J. Wyngaarden were appointed to the faculty, honorable emeritation was granted to Prof.

F. M. Ten Hoor, who had given almost twenty-five years of service. The Synod heard appeals on the case of Prof. Janssen who had been deposed in 1922, and it was decided to expand the seminary by adding a sixth professorship in the field of apologetics and ethics. We smile today when we read that a resolution was passed which required that men considered for a professorship in the Seminary should have had a general scientific training at least equal to that of the incoming juniors. It was the Synod of 1924 which passed the resolution requiring students who have studied theology elsewhere to take at least one year at Calvin Seminary if they desire to enter the Christian Reformed ministry. And it was also the Synod of 1924 which severed our brief membership in the Federal Council of Churches.

One may be excused today for lack of familiarity with all these decisions. However, the doctrinal decisions concerning common grace ought to be better known by all of us, not least by the ministers and theological students. These decisions are important because they concern doctrines confessed by our churches. They are important decisions because a most unfortunate separation developed in connection with them. A great deal of confusion has arisen concerning these decisions. Everyone who takes seriously the ecumenical duty of the Christian Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Churches will have to study the decisions of 1924 carefully. The 1957 communication from the Protestant Reformed Churches (De Wolf) admits that “the possibility exists that we have misinterpreted your position. If this is pointed out to us we assure you that we will correct it” (Acts 1957, p. 532). I am personally convinced that a great deal of misunderstanding does exist concerning the 1924 decisions on common grace. This paper is presented in order to describe the general tenor of those decisions which constitute the official position of the Church.

In the first section of this paper I will set forth the general features of the decisions of 1924. In the second section I will discuss the three points briefly, and in the final section I will try to indicate the genuinely Reformed character of those decisions.


General Features of the Decisions of 1924

The actual three-point decision of the Synod is, unfortunately, very brief. But the all too brief decision implies for its context the important Advisory Committee Report which precedes it. Since the three points are obviously dependent upon that Committee Report, a proper understanding of the three points will require close attention to this Report (Acts, pp. 113–137).

The membership of this advisory committee is worth noting. Its president was Rev. Y. P. De Jong and its reporter Dr. Clarence Bouma, while Professor L. Berkhof was the adviser. Other members of the Committee were E. F. J. Van Halsema, A. Bliek, T. Vander Ark, S. Dekker, J. Verbrugge and J. T. Brandsma. That this Committee was dealing with an issue of wide interest and concern within the denomination is evident from the fact that it had to consider approximately thirty documents of protest and appeaJ.2 There were at least eleven points of dispute mentioned in the various protests (p. 121f.). The Advisory Committee suggested that only three of these should be taken up by the Synod. These three, which were basic to the three points on common grace, were selected because the Committee believed that they were points on which the Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema had taken a clear stand, and because they concerned matters which were expressed in our Creeds. The Committee felt that the peace of the Church required that the Synod should take a clear stand on these disputed points (p. 124 ). In the light of subsequent discussions, it is important to note that the Advisory Committee and the Synod realized that the three points did not constitute the whole doctrine of common grace. The three points were not even meant to constitute a well-rounded summary of the doctrine of common grace. They were simply a reassertion of three elements believed to be contained in our creeds and now called into dispute by Danhof and Hoeksema. Although a communication from Classis Muskegon requested Synod to make a “careful Scriptural, historical, and doctrinal investigation” which would lead to a specific formulation of the doctrine (p. 120), the Committee advised Synod not to do this since “such a declaration would presuppose that this doctrine had been thought through and developed in all its details, which is certainly not the case” (p. 134). The Committee specifically rejected the proposal that a committee be appointed “to study the matter of common grace in order to come to the formulation of a dogma which could be made a part of the Confession” (p. 134). But it did recommend that “the leaders of our people, ministers as well as professors…engage in further study of the doctrine of common grace and to discuss the problems involved in it carefully and present them to our people in lectures and articles. It is desirable,” the Committee declared, “that many take part in this, not a few or only a small number” (p. 135). It was hoped that in this way the doctrine would be thoroughly investigated in all of its aspects and that eventually the time would be ripe for the “formulation of a dogma” of common grace. It is unfortunate that so little of this was actually done during the next quarter century. But these assertions of the Committee help us to understand how the three points were regarded. This, it seems to me, has significance in judging the creedal status of the three points, which seems to be a touchy problem in the current ecumenical discussions.

Another factor, important in understanding the general focus of the three points, is the concluding witness or testimony of the Synod. This testimony to the Churches constitutes a warning against worldliness and a possible misuse of the doctrine of common grace. While common grace and the antithesis are sometimes put in juxtaposition, the Synod called for the sturdy maintenance of both. I simply mention this testimony here, but will return to it later.

We must now turn to the three points on common grace and seek to understand their general tenor in the light of the matters mentioned above. Obviously we can refer only briefly to each point.

The Three Points in Particular

The first of the three points concerns the “favorable attitude of God to mankind in general and not only to the elect.” The Synod asserted that “in addition to the saving grace of God unto eternal life shown only unto the elect, there is also a certain favor or grace (gunst of genade) which he displays unto his creatures in general” (pp. 145–6).

Need for asserting this point arose from the fact that Hoeksema and Danhof had clearly taken position against it. The Committee quoted the following statement from Zonde en Genade: “Grace is not in things, but only in the good favor of God. Gold and silver, rain and sunshine, gifts and talents are not in themselves grace. But grace can certainly work in all those things, but it always remains particular and is given only to His people” (p. 125).3 Of the other quotations one of the clearest is a statement of Hoeksema in The Banner. After declaring that “such an attitude of God is utterly inconceivable,” Hoeksema concludes: “Hence we deny that in any way or to any extent, for time or eternity, God assumes an attitude of positive favor or grace over against the reprobate” (pp. 125–6).

Now, for the assertion of a favorable attitude of God to all men, the Synod claimed support “in the quoted Scripture passages and in the Canons of Dort II, 5 and III-IV, 8 and 9, where the general offer of the Gospel is discussed” (p. 146). At this point one notes an unfortunate technical weakness in the Synodical decision—the kind all too frequent in our Synodical actions. The Scriptural passages to which reference is made are not part of the official decision. The passages can be found by turning back some twenty pages to the Advisory Committee Report (p. 126). It is obvious that those are the passages meant. And this, though an unfortunate technical weakness, does indicate that the Advisory Committee’s Report was an integral and indispensable part of the official decisions.

The passages mentioned are Psalm 145:9; Matthew 5:44, 45; Luke 6:35, 36; Acts 14:16, 17; I Timothy 4:10; Romans 2:4; as well as the passages concerning the well-meant gospel offer, Ezekiel 33:11 and 18:23. Unfortunately, the Advisory Committee Report does no more than list the passages in proof-text method. However, the problem involves divergent exegesis of each passage. I t is not possible to evaluate each passage here. It must be admitted that they are not all equally valid. It seems to me that one of the strongest passages in defense of the Synodical decision is Luke 6:35, 36: “But love your enemies, and do them good and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” If this passage is parallel to Matthew 5:44, 45, as I believe it is, then this attitude of kindness and mercy is applied to the gifts of rain and sunshine given to all men as well.

The Synodical decision seeks support for the well-meant offer of the gospel by an appeal to the Canons of Dort. The Canons (III, IV, 8,9) are indeed quite explicit in asserting the doctrine of the well-meant gospel call, for they say: “As many as am called by the gospel are unfeignedly called.” But I do not think the Canons say much concerning the precise point at issue; namely, whether this well-meant offer of the gospel is evidence of an attitude of favor on God’s part to mankind in general. Perhaps the statement that “God calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts” (III–IV, 9) comes closest to the point at issue. The Synod claims further support for the first point by an appeal to the classic Reformed theologians who have maintained this doctrine.

The second and the third points were thought to be involved in the first. The Advisory Committee stated that it considered the first point to be “of central significance in the question which has caused so much unrest in the Church. The other two points are very closely related to this one and indeed are more or less contained in it” (p. 124).

The second point concerns the restraint of sin. Synod declared “that God by means of the general operations of His Spirit, without the renewal of the heart, restrains (bridles) sin in its unhindered breaking forth, as a result of which human society has remained possible...” (p. 146). The notion of a restraint of sin, which the Committee believed to be Scriptural and creedal, was rejected by Hoeksema and Danhof. This statement was quoted from Niet Doopersch Maar Gereformeerd: “We understand very well that sin has not yet reached its full ripeness. But we explain that this is so simply because of the organic development of things, and not from a restraining influence of God of which the Scripture and Creeds say nothing” (p. 128).

I regret to state that I believe the Synodical decision with its appeal to the Scripture passages mentioned in the Committee report is unfortunately weak at this point again. Not that I think the decision incorrect or that there are no valid Scriptural data. On the contrary, the Committee did not in my estimation adduce the strongest Scriptural evidence which was available. The passages are simply listed, and yet the difference between Hoeksema and the Committee concerned precisely the proper understanding of each passage quoted. Genesis 6: 3 is quoted, for example, but such venerable exegetes as G. Vos and G. C. Aalders interpret the passage in such a way that it has no real bearing upon the second point of 1924. Although the passages quoted Psalm 81:12, 13; Acts 7:42; Romans 1:24, 25, 28; II Thessalonians 2:6, 7—do have bearing on the question of the restraint of sin, they are not clear proof for the decision taken. It seems to me that an analysis of the restraint of sin resulting from the confusion of tongues at Babel would have been more significant. Further Scriptural analysis of this sort would substantially have strengthened the Biblical support for the second point.

I think the creedal support for the second pOint is more substantial, however. In the work Niet Doopersch Maar Gereformeerd, Hoeksema and Danhof wrote: “Where does it (the Confession) speak of a restraint upon the process of sin? Absolutely nowhere! (Immers nergens)” (p. 128). But the Synod had clear evidence in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession which speaks of God’s providence, asserting “that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us.” Article 36 of the Belgic Confession was also mentioned. Here the reference is to government which God ordained “to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained…” and that he “invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evil-doer’s and for the protection of them that do well.” It seems to me that these Creedal references spoke precisely of the thing to which the second point referred and was denied by Hoeksema and Danhof.

There is an additional weakness in the second point, however, one against which Rev. Wassink, a delegate of the Synod of 1924, rightly protested (p. 192). The second point states that sin ‘ is restrained by “the general operations of the Holy Spirit.” Although this may well be true, it is not precisely ascribed to the Holy Spirit in the passages of Scripture nor in the Creedal statements. That this work of the Holy Spirit did not involve the regenerating grace of God unto salvation is clear. The appeal to Calvin in this connection is worth noting: “But here we ought to remember that amidst this corruption of nature there is some room for Divine grace, not to purify it but internally to restrain its operation. For should the Lord permit the minds of all men to give up the reins to every lawless passion, there certainly would not be an individual in the world whose actions would not evince all the crimes for which Paul condemns human nature in general, to be most truly applicable to him .. .In his elect the Lord heals these maladies by a method which we shall hereafter describe. In others he restrains them, only to prevent their ebullitions so far as he sees to be necessary for the preservation of the universe” (Institutes II, iii, 3).

The third point, “concerning the performance of civic righteousness by the unregenerate,” is closely bound to the second point, as it is also in Calvin’s statement. The Synod as asserted that “the unregenerate, though incapable of any saving good, can perform such civic good...that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such influence upon man, that he is enabled to perform civic good…” (p. 146). The Scriptural passages to which appeal is made are again those listed in the Advisory Committee Report. They are the passages which refer to the deeds of Jehu, Jehoash, and Amaziah (II Kings 10:29, 30; 12:2; 14:3). Luke 6:33 speaks of sinners doing good to those that do good to them, and Romans 2:14 of the Gentiles who without the law do the things of the law.

Important again are the Creedal statements which the Advisory Committee felt were jeopardized by Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof. The third point appeals to the Canons of Dort III–IV, 4, and the Advisory Committee quoted this part of the article:

“There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior.”

This was to the point in support of the third point. In view of the misinterpretation sometimes given to the third point, it is unfortunate that the immediately following sentence from the Canons was not added: “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” All of this is in line with Calvin’s explanation of how the restraint of sin operates. “Hence some by shame, and some by fear of the laws, are prevented from running into many kinds of pollutions, though they cannot in any great degree dissemble their impurity; others, because they think that a virtuous course of life is advantageous, entertain some languid desires after it, others go further, and display more than common excellence, that by their majesty they may confine the vulgar to their duty. Thus God by His providence restrains the perverseness of our nature from breaking out into external acts but does not purify it within” (Institutes, II, iii, 3).

This all too brief and incomplete survey has shown that the three points do have Scriptural foundation and creedal basis. The theologians mentioned, especially Calvin, show that classic Reformed theologians have held this position earlier. At the same time we must admit that there are technical weaknesses in the decision as well as the more serious weaknesses of inapt Scriptural reference. Then too, the brevity of the decisions and the general imperfection of all human work is evident. The three paints obviously do not contain the whole doctrine of common grace. It seems clear that the three points were not meant to be a new creed but only a defense of elements already in the creeds.

Now we turn to examine the Reformed character of the three points.

The Reformed Character of the Decisions of 1924

It is sometimes claimed that the three paints undermine the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and constitute a rejection of the doctrine of the antithesis. Some maintain that a form of Arminianism is always involved in the doctrine of common grace. It is true that a certain doctrine of common grace does destroy the doctrines of the antithesis and total depravity and the absolute need of saving grace. Such views of common grace were, unfortunately, in the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, as the protest of Quirinus Breen indicates. However, I am convinced that the official decision of 1924 rejected that view of common grace and maintained the genuinely Reformed position. It is imperative that this be recognized and acknowledged in order that mutual understanding between Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed may be fostered. I shall seek to illustrate this thesis by referring to certain elements in the second and third points, to the Testimony of Synod addressed to the churches, and to later actions of the Synod in reply to the protest of Rev. Breen.

Both the second and third points presuppose the doctrine of total depravity and the radical difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate. It is definitely said in the second point, e. g., that the restraint of sin by the action of God does not renew the heart. The second point is understandable only in the context of an insistence upon total depravity, which depravity is not lessened by God’s restraining the unhindered breaking forth of sin. Precisely such a context is provided in Calvin’s discussion of the restraint of sin to which the Synod of 1924 calls attention. A careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes, II, iii, 3 will amply illustrate the point.

Furthermore, the doctrine of the antithesis seems to be definitely in mind when the civic righteousness of the unregenerate is termed a “so-called civic righteousness.” It is also stated in just so many words that this unregenerate, in whom sin is restrained, and who is enabled to perform “so-called civic righteousness,” is “unable to do any saving good.” In support of this point and in an effort to show that it was saying no more than the Creeds already said, the Synod of 1924 mentioned the Canons of Dort, III–IV, 4. I know of no more clear-cut statement which recognizes common grace and yet maintains the antithesis. It is unfortunate that in the attempted brevity, the three points did not quote this creedal statement. But it is mentioned, nevertheless, and I shall quote it here again:

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God. (Canons, III–IV, 4) (italics added). The italicized lines are especially noteworthy. These are confessional statements endorsed by both Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed and it is to these statements that the Synod of 1924 appealed in support of the third paint.

In further explanation of the Reformed character of the decisions of 1924, it is important to notice the Testimony which was addressed to the churches. After reasserting what it considered to be creedal points in dispute on common grace, the Synod issued a warning. It asserted that the doctrine of common grace could easily be misused and therefore it emphasized the warnings of Revs.H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema against worldliness (Cf. Acts 1924, p. 147). The Synod indicated that this danger was more than imaginary and appealed furthermore to Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck for support. The churches were called to an alert defense of common grace in order to avoid the danger of making it a bridge between the Church and the world. The Synod admitted that there was more danger of becoming like the world than there was of fleeing from the world. The Synod asserted that “the awareness of a spiritual-moral antithesis was becoming increasingly vague in the consciousness of many people” and was being replaced by a general feeling of brotherhood. While reasserting the doctrine of common grace, the Synod at the same time called for a principal life in which the Church, while maintaining the points on common grace, would likewise “guard the spiritual-moral antithesis with tooth and nail” (p. 148).

Anyone who reads carefully ti,e Committee Report and the official action of the Synod of 1924 will be impressed with Synod’s desire to maintain common grace and the antithesis. But obviously this is more easily said than done. And some may even charge that reference to the antithesis at this point is no real guarantee of its defense. With this in mind it is instructive to turn to other actions of the same Synod of 1924 after it had completed its action on the three points.

A statement in the Testimony mentioned above provides a good point of transition. In the midst of its warning the Synod stated that “there is a strong desire to bring theology into conformity with a science which is in the service of unbelief” (p. 148). By itself this statement appears rather vague. However, when one reads the later actions of Synod, he will discover that precisely such an attempt was made by Rev. Q. Breen in his protest against the deposition of Dr. Janssen. Rev. Q. Breen appealed to common grace to provide a common ground between believer and unbeliever, especially in the area of apologetics. Breen acknowledged that “unbelief as such can have no knowledge of the truth,” but went on to say that “the unbeliever, because of common grace, can have some knowledge of it, and can, therefore, in the capacity of a scientist accept true definitions in theological science” (p. 201). The Committee reporting to Synod rejected this contention of Rev. Breen by saying that the first part was inconsistent with Paul’s assertion in I Corinthians 2:14 and the second part was a “virtual denial of the antithesis in science. There can be no agreement, as to principles, between believing and unbelieving science…” (p. 202). This simply illustrates what was said in rebuttal at various points.

In thus rejecting the argumentation of Rev. Breen, the Synod indicated that its Testimony to maintain the antithesis was not mere idle talk. It practiced what it preached.

It must be admitted that the Synod of 1924 did not say the last thing nor all there is to say on common grace. The Synod acknowledged that it was speaking on just three points of a doctrine. Nor did the Synod carefully define what it meant by the antithesis and deal adequately with it. But it is instructive to note that the Synod of 1924 defended both the doctrine of common grace and the doctrine of the antithesis. The Synod was theologically alert when it warned against a possible misuse of the doctrine of common grace, but it felt constrained in the light of Scripture to defend what it considered a correct doctrine nonetheless. The Synod’s good judgment and Reformed consciousness is indicated in its defense of both common grace and the antithesis. This brief study indicates that when the three points of 1924 are read in their context, the doctrines of total depravity and the antithesis are not endangered. The Communication from the De Wolf group has indicated a willingness to correct any misinterpretation to which they may hold. At the same time it is incumbent upon all of us, students, ministers, and laymen, to become intelligently aware of the contents of Synodical actions which have been the source of so much discussion and confusion. We may be confident that such doctrinal consciousness will foster the cause of Reformed ecumenicity.

1. This paper is submitted at the request of the Managing Editor. In slightly altered form it was presented to the Holland-Zeeland Inter Nos and portions of it have appeared in print earlier.

2. I have not had access to these documents, nor do I care to enter now into the very complex historical and ecclesiastical question involved. I am interested here simply in setting forth the doctrinal problem involved. It seems to me that this is the important question which faces our churches at present. If there can be proper understanding of the doctrinal issues involved, I believe the ecumenical challenge which faces us will find a much happier settlement.

3. Regarding the quotations from Hoeksema and Danhof: For the convenience of the reader, the page references are to the Acts of Synod, where these quotations are given in fuller form. The original work should, of course, be consulted for the context of each statement.