We praise the Lord for the Liberation of 1944. Thereby He continued, on this historic occasion seventy years ago, His church gathering work in The Netherlands. He rescued us from the tyranny of a domineering synod which forced false doctrine upon the churches. Yes us. Our Australian church history is tied to the Liberation and we in Australia have also reaped its fruits.
In order to understand how the Liberation of 1944 came about we need to go back to previous church liberations. In 1834 a small congregation in Ulrum in the north of Holland liberated itself from the Dutch state church because its minister, H deCock, refused to go along with the ‘enlightened thinking’ dominating the state church. This led to what has become known as the First Secession (1834).
Half a century later another group liberated itself from the state church because of the liberal trends and unscriptural tolerance dominating that same church. This is often referred to as the Second Secession (1886). One very influential and dynamic minister in this group was Abraham Kuyper, a prolific writer and gifted speaker.
As might be expected, these two groups, both of which wanted to serve the Lord in faithfulness to His Word, united in what came to be called the Union of 1892. However, some views of Kuyper did unsettle a number of people within the Union churches, now called the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. His views on the covenant and baptism led to appeals being lodged at synods. Kuyper’s views about baptism came to be known as presumptive regeneration. It was based on the idea that elected children had a seed of faith lodged within them. As the child grew, that seed of faith would develop and bear the fruits of faith. If no fruits of faith became evident, one was to conclude that the child had no seed of faith when it was born.
Kuyper said that baptism is a seal of faith, but if there is no faith in the child there is nothing for baptism to seal. Therefore, it was said, we will presume that the child of believing parents has a seed of faith and on that assumption baptise the child. If later it appears that the child does not believe we will know that it could not have had a seed of faith. Consequently the baptism couldn’t have been real but was merely a messing about with some water.
You can imagine that if this view prevailed, parents of children who died in infancy would be tormented, thinking, “I wonder if my Tommy is saved”. There was no basis for such concern, because Kuyper’s view was wrong. Baptism does not seal something within the child but it seals the promises of God, and those promises are always true and reliable.
Anyway, the matter was dealt with at the Synod 1905. This synod tried to uphold God’s Word but at the same time it did not want to offend Kuyper and his followers for fear of destabilising the new union of churches. Therefore it said that, on the one hand, you could speak of considering the children to be regenerated until the opposite became evident (thereby supporting Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration). Yet on the other hand synod said that this presumptive regeneration idea couldn’t be the basis for baptism because baptism is based on God’s promises (thereby supporting the critics of presumptive regeneration). Although this appeared to pacify both sides in the debate, both sides could also continue to hold their own views and support them on the basis of the synod decision.
Kuyper, because he was such a powerful leader and influential figure who indeed did much good, continued to be venerated by many after he died in 1920. When K Schilder and some others tested Kuyper’s views on the basis of Scripture and confession and concluded that some of them were not Scriptural, the followers of Kuyper were dismayed and irritated. This was particularly so because some of Kuyper’s views underpinned their ‘think big’ mentality of doing things together with Christians who were not of the true church. If these views were unscriptural, as Schilder claimed, it threatened their ecumenical ideology.
For example, one of Kuyper’s notions that came in for considerable criticism was his idea of the pluriformity of the church. This is a the idea that instead of seeing churches as either true or false, that is, as either legitimate church of Christ or not, different churches can be more or less pure. Tied in with this is the idea of the invisible church. This idea is that only God knows those who are really His children and, since they are to be found in many different churches, those people form the ‘invisible church’, the church as God alone sees it. The advantage of this sort of thinking for Kuyper and his followers was that it allowed one to engage in all sorts of ‘inter-church’ activities and to set up organizations with Christians of different churches.
Another of Kuyper’s notions was that of common grace. This was based on the idea that God continues to bless unbelievers with such things as rain and sunshine and health, etc. This ‘grace’, he said, is common to both believers and unbelievers, and enables unbelievers also to do much that is good. Moreover, said Kuyper, the essence of what is produced by all mankind will be carried over into the New Jerusalem. The upshot of this is that one can join unbelievers in various organisations since the essence of all of man’s cultural endeavours will be used by God in the new heaven and new earth.
Hence, when Schilder and others tested Kuyper’s ideas and proved they were not in accordance with Scripture and the confessions, many of Kuyper’s followers, caught up in the mentality of broad ecumenical cooperation, became alarmed. Many of these Kuyper supporters were from the Free University, which Kuyper had helped set up, and they saw their ‘generally accepted views’ being threatened. Moreover, all the fiery polemics in church magazines, the tone of which was at times quite sharp, seemed to them rather unbrotherly. They felt it disturbed the peace.
Consequently they asked synod to do something about these ‘different views’. Synod 1936-1938 appointed a committee and this committee was to report to the next synod. It should not have done this because the request had not come from one of the churches. Included in the appointments to the committee were Schilder and Greijdanus as well as a number of supporters of Kuyper. Needless to say, there were divisions in the committee and when it presented its findings at the next synod it presented a majority report and a minority report.
The next synod sat from 1939-1943. It was war time and Schilder, because of his outspoken resistance to the German occupation, was first imprisoned and, after being released and continuing his resistance, was forced to go into hiding. Many churches implored the synod to postpone till after the war the issue of the ‘differing views’. Synod ignored the requests. Instead in 1942 it pronounced, in effect, that the presumptive regeneration view was correct. Kuyper’s followers had been vindicated by synod.
This synod had no sooner ended than another synod was convened. It was to run from 1943-1946. It had to deal with many appeals from the churches against both what had been said and how synod had acted. The appeals said synod had pronounced as true a doctrine which was not based on God’s Word and it was also acting contrary to God’s Word by dealing with matters not placed on the agenda by the churches.
However, instead of reconsidering the previous synod’s decision, this synod reinforced it, demanding that “in our churches nothing may be taught which is not completely in accordance with the particular doctrinal pronouncements” of the previous synod. Candidates for the ministry had to agree to teach Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration idea if they were to be allowed to become ministers. Schilder objected, told synod as much, and sent his objections to the churches. Synod interpreted this as creating division in the churches and promptly suspended him as professor of the college and minister in the churches. Later he and others were deposed altogether.
On the 11th of August, 1944, over a thousand people gathered together and officially adopted an Act of Liberation and Return. Thereby they were liberated from the unscriptural doctrinal pronouncements which synod had said were according to God’s Word and therefore had to be taught. They were also liberated from an unscriptural hierarchy in the churches. Thereby the Liberated people acted in accordance with Art. 31 of the Church order, whereby we agree that it is important to abide by the decisions of broader assemblies, such as synods, unless the decisions made are contrary to God’s Word and the Church order.
Over the next months and years many congregations liberated themselves. An atmosphere of relief prevailed. There was a new enthusiasm and realisation that the reformation of our lives had to be on-going. Hence there was a desire to reform all areas of life, to be faithful to the norms of Scripture both in church, in personal daily life, and in our Christian organisations. This led to the establishment of their ‘own’ organisations, including schools, in which they were one in the faith because they were one in obedience to Christ’s command to join His church, desiring to “submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which god had given them as members of the same body” (BCF art 28).
At the Liberation the people had sung Psalm 124:
Blest be the LORD who made us not their prey;
As from the fowler’s net a bird may flee,
So from their broken snare did we go free…
The relevance of this Psalm was clear. They were now free, liberated from the tyranny of a church which had become false.
We, here in Australia, call ourselves Free Reformed Churches because our history is tied to what the Lord did for his churches in Holland seventy years ago. The Lord made us free from the unscriptural teachings and hierarchy of a wayward synod, reformed in wanting to submit to God’s Word alone, the doctrine of which we believe and confess in our Three Forms of Unity. He kept us as church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which He continues to gather, defend and preserve (LD 21), and which “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head” (BCF art. 29). It was all His doing, and hence for this Liberation, too, we praise and thank Him.