In the previous instalment, Br Ballast spoke about how, prior to the Liberation of 1944, life in the churches was characterised by spiritual decline—contentment with what had been achieved, spiritual stagnation, not living for Christ’s return, worldliness and materialism. In this second instalment he traces the destructive influence of some of Abraham Kuyper’s teachings, the rejection of these teachings through the Liberation, how this led to the blessing of reformed organisations.
The RCN: from deformation to Liberation to deformation 2
The spiritual decline Rev Knoop observed in the churches prior to the Liberation was fostered by the scholastic theology of those days—Kuyper’s teachings of common grace, church pluriformity and presumptive regeneration. Abraham Kuyper was an intellectual giant in the churches during the late 1800s and early 1900s and, although he did much good, some of his ideas were not Scriptural.
- Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace created a dichotomy between church and state. The church existed for personal salvation, that’s where church members shared the grace unto eternal life. Heaven and hell were topics for the Sunday. In secular society God’s Spirit worked common grace. It restrains sin and provides unbelievers with talents with which they honour their Creator. Hence Christians should align themselves with unbelievers wherever possible provided there is some recognition and common ground. This teaching eliminated the necessity for the spiritual antithesis.
- Church pluriformity had a similar impact. Due to an increasing variety of churches it became more and more difficult to apply art 29 of the Belgic confession: ‘No salvation outside the church’. ‘It does not fit in today’s ecclesiastical realities,’ wrote prof Bavinck in 1923. He added: ‘This article 29 needs thorough study’. A true church in absolute terms is not possible on this earth. Equally, a false church in absolute terms does not exist either’. Slowly but surely the term ‘True Church’ was applied to any church upholding the three Sola’s of the Reformation; any doctrine beyond that was categorised with the terms pure or less pure. ‘Since the Reformation – said Bavinck – the church has developed into a period of pluriformity. This forces us to seek a spiritual unity transcending confessional boundaries.’ This development created a level of subjectivism whereby truth and the value and importance of truth were up for negotiation. The Westminster Confession, which speaks of the church in terms of pure or less pure, was often referred to in support of this.
- Kuyper’s doctrine of presumptive regeneration was widely taught as well. A child is baptised on the presumption that he or she will become a believer when growing up. They taught that the covenant was only for the elect, so if baptism is a sign and seal of this election one can only presume that this child will embrace the gospel. Thankfully, we know that baptism is a sign and seal of the PROMISE of the covenant which requires a daily response of gratitude. ‘This promise is like a goad’, writes prof Schilder, ‘which daily spurs us into action’.
A new beginning
You may wonder: why all this history? I believe we need to understand this background to understand the development within the RCN, our Dutch sister churches in which we have our roots, after this 11th of August church Liberation spoken about earlier.
Some 70,000-people liberated themselves, roughly 10 percent of the pre-war Reformed churches. The other 90 percent were happy to submit to synod’s hierarchy, or simply didn’t have the spiritual fortitude to break with it. They became known as the synodical churches.
Those 70,000 people of the Liberation, which after some years grew to 90.000, put themselves to work with great enthusiasm. There was so very much to do. All of church life had to be re-built. Initially, many church services were held in private homes, bakeries, farmhouses etc. as most of the church buildings stayed with the synodicals. So, they had to buy/hire/build church-buildings, set up schools: primary and secondary, set up organisations to support general church life; woman’s league, men’s league, bible studies, mission, etc. Everything had to be re-built from the start. Although the Liberation was a continuation of Christ’s true churches in the Netherlands, it also heralded a new beginning.
It was in this period that the so-called “G’ organisations were established. ‘G’ stands for ‘Gereformeerd’ (Reformed). In 1948 RCN members started a Reformed Political Party. In the same year they also started a Reformed Newspaper, which really was a huge achievement. In 1952 they established a Reformed Social Union, in 1954 even a Reformed Travel Association and somewhat later a Reformed Broadcasting Association. All these different ‘G’ organisations had in common that each of them was based on Scripture and Confession, and each organisation was tied to membership of the Free Reformed Churches. To become a member of any of these organisations, one had to be a member of the Church, as that would indicate a true commitment to the confessions. This renewed commitment and dedication was a result of the renewed understanding of what it means to be a true church and the immense responsibilities this placed on their shoulders.
The Christ-centred preaching, the scriptural understanding of the covenant, all these things together presented a worldview which renewed and motivated their focus and understanding. The coming of God’s kingdom was directly linked to the increase of the church as confessed in LD 48: Rule us by your Word and Spirit that more and more we submit to you, preserve and increase your church and destroy the work of the devil, all this with the aim of the final coming of God’s glorious Kingdom where He shall be all in all. They had learned again that God’s covenant law applies to all spheres of life equally and the true church was the powerhouse to formulate, present and preserve that message. Indeed, this was a radical break from Kuyper’s ‘Common Grace’ philosophy and ‘church pluriformity’ thinking.
Winds of change
However, things were starting to change… We move on to the 1970s and 1980s and discover that not everyone was happy with these developments. As time wore on, critical voices were raised. The strong link between church and the various ‘G’ organisations was challenged. People were starting to become uncomfortable with what they called an ‘exclusivist’ approach. This is ‘church-ism’, they said, and they meant that there was too much emphasis on the church and the strict membership rules.
(more about that in the next – final – instalment)