A Goodly Heritage: The Secession of 1834 and Its Impact on Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and North America
The Preface is an account by Cornelius Pronk of his own church life. This is a fascinating record. As for the book itself, the material was originally lectures which became written articles, which finally were complied. The lectures were given so that those within the Free Reformed Church would know something of their heritage. Those outside will also learn a lot.
There are in all 34 chapters, which chart events from the Secession of 1834 (Ch1-10) and the doctrinal differences between De Cock and Scholte which involved the doctrine of the Church, membership, baptism and confession of faith, covenant. At heart was the issue of what it meant to be a Church and who was a member of it. Related to this was the was the covenant; specifically the covenant community.
Chapter 12 examines preaching in the Secession Churches. Once again we see the influence of De Cock. Readers will identify with the salient characteristics. The Synod of 1840 was a key moment in resolving a number of thorny issues. The conflict between Schopenhauer and Van Verzen (the Amsterdam Conflict) was eventually brought to a conclusion. There were other conflicts too: the Brummelkamp issue (over Church order Ch16), and the well-meant offer (Ch19). The Synod of 1863 considered the issue of infants in the covenant and sanctification.
Differences over Freedom of Assembly led to several congregations severing relations with the Secession church under the title ‘Reformed Churches under the Cross’. Reunion was achieved in 1869. Pronk suggests that it could serve as a model for others. Following the Reunion there were several independent congregations (e.g. the Ledeboerians). Pronk gives us a fascinating account of their existence.
G.H. Kersten is the subject for Ch24 and rightly so (his Reformed Dogmatics was republished in 2005). Kersten was influential amongst the Ledeboerians and was instrumental in uniting most of the Ledeboerian congregations into one denomination called ‘Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands’ many of whom emigrated to North America. The Ledeboerian and Cross churches united in 1907. When some Cross Churches had returned to the Secession in 1869, Kersten, on the grounds of principle, accused them of overlooking important doctrinal differences. Theologically, Kersten rejected the three covenant view.
The birth of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857 (Ch 26&27) is described in detail. Originally known as Holland Reformed Church then the True Dutch Reformed Church followed by True Christian Reformed Church and finally, Christian Reformed Church (CRC). There were a number of factors that led to its emergence and growth. An ongoing question is the legitimacy of the 1857 secession.
Kuyper, the Doleantie and the Union of 1892 will enthral readers. Doleantie means ‘complaining churches’! Eventually a merger with the Secession took place in 1892. Those who objected to the Union became known as the CGKN.
Dutch American Secession Theologians (Hulst, Ten Hoor, Heyns and Hoeksema, Schilder) are considered in turn. Dutch Secession Theology after 1892 was still dogged by Kuyperism. The role of Bavinck was important in mediating between the Secession and Doleantie factions within the GKN. Pronk questions however if Bavinck probed deeply enough to get at the essence of Kuyper’s errors. Ironically the compromise of 1905 led to the divisions of 1942.
The leading Dutch Secession Theologians (Ch33) whom Pronk examines are van der Schuit, van der Meiden, Prof Wisse. Pronk expresses appreciation for Hendrik De Cock, gives a frank analysis of the ‘big change’ after 1886 and the various trends in theological thinking. New denominations emerged such as the CG (also known as NRC) and Liberated Churches (under Schilder). The various twists and turns over association and/or maintaining differences are outlined. It makes for sober reading.
The Summary and Conclusions is essential to drawing all the threads together. Significantly Pronk raises the inherent contradiction between holding a free offer and two covenant theology. The Marrow-men were forced to find alternative grounds that were different to those of the three covenant position. And such differences do matter. In the covenant of grace is Christ the Mediator of the covenant or a party to it? With whom is it made? With the elect only or with Believers and their seed? Is it conditional or unconditional?
Future editions would benefit from a diagram of the various denominations so that readers can see at a glance how the various strands relate to each other.
Rev E T Kirkland