The Evangelical Outlook in Holland

Ph. J. Hoedemaker

Originally published in The Catholic Presbyterian. An international journal—ecclesiastical and religious. Edited by Prof. W.G. Blaikie. London: James Nisbet & Co.; New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., No. 4, April 1879, pp. 247–253.

IT would probably be easier to write an essay on some single topic connected with the general subject of this article, than to compress within the allotted space the abundant material which lies to our hand in taking a survey of what has been passing in our Church and country of the Netherlands. The bare record of a few facts will not serve our purpose. We must show their value and import, indicate their relations to each other, and, in fact, illustrate them, especially from the history of the past. At the same time, mindful that it is necessary to be concise, we shall attempt no more than to trace some general outlines whence a fair idea may be gathered of the state of things in Holland. Perhaps we may have another opportunity of treating more at length some subject connected with the theology and religion of this country.

Let us go back in our Church’s history to its reorganisation in 1816. The Revolution had passed, leaving both the Church and the State in a [248] condition of dire confusion. William, Prince of Orange, had returned from exile, and had been called to the throne. One of his first acts was to remodel the Church on principles essentially different, as has since become more and more apparent, from those embodied in the canons of our last General Synod, held at Dort, 1618–19.

Under this new constitution given to the Church by Government decree, the provincial synods were entirely suppressed. The classes (presbyteries) were deprived of all legislative and executive powers. These were vested in an ecclesiastical court of seventeen voting members, falsely called the synod, which had committees or minor courts connected with it in each of the provinces, and even in each of the classes. The lay element was throughout but poorly represented. And, in accordance with an extensive and intricate code of regulations, the classes were only to be heard on changes propounded by the Synod. Some real power lay with the provincial committees, which by a two-thirds vote could veto the action of the central and supreme court (the Synod).

Had religious life been stronger, and able to cope with royal popularity and with the pecuniary interest which ministers saw to be bound up in the measure, the new regulations would not have been adopted or enforced without earnest protest. As it was, only two classes made a show of opposition, and they were immediately disbanded. But the main reason why the measure could be so suddenly and completely carried into effect is to be found in the promise, incorporated in the eleventh article of the constitution, that the power of the new synod should extend only to the defence of the doctrine of the Church, not to the adoption of new symbols or changes in the old.

Without criticising this form of government, or even indicating how it put nearly all power into the hands of a few, and those few, until very lately, the so-called Liberal[1] party, we may here state that the very first synod held under the new regime made the clause in article eleven, which was intended as a safeguard, a dead letter. Henceforth the formula which every candidate for the ministry had to sign was changed, so as to promise adherence to the standards of faith not quia, because, but quatenus, in as far as, they conformed to Holy Writ.

Everything was left to individual interpretation, and although the Synod afterwards often explained that the liberty of teaching which it proclaimed was not unlimited, but confined to the “spirit and the purport of the doctrine accepted by the Church,” every minister was practically free to preach as he pleased; and all attempts to carry out the regulations concerning church discipline were entirely vain.[2]

No one, however negative in his views, was ever formally dismissed from church fellowship, although many left the Church of their own [249] accord. As long as their conscience allowed them to sign the articles of faith and to baptise in the Triune name, they could maintain their standing as far as the Synod was concerned.

From what has been said, it will be plain on what ground the orthodox party which remained the Church was divided from the party which left it, to form a new society under the name, as it at present stands, of the “Christian Reformed Church” [to wit, the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerken, formed in 1834].

Both parties agreed in accepting the symbols of faith, and in acknowledging the necessity of church discipline, but those who withdrew, thought that the national Church had so entirely lost its distinctive character as to cease to be a true Christian Church; so that they felt themselves called to set about re-establishing it on its old basis. Those who remained protested that the new form of government was thrust upon the Church by compulsion; that this was done, nevertheless, not without the Church’s own fault; that the Liberals, although in power, were not of right in the Church; that, on the contrary, they were there in open opposition to the eleventh article of the constitution and various other regulations; in fine, that the children of God were called upon to preach the error down, to pray for a revival of true religion, and meanwhile to be active in the work of evangelisation, preaching the Gospel to congregations afflicted with Liberal pastors, in halls, or barns, or private dwellings.

Although the opposition between the two parties at one time ran very high and still exists, there has been co-operation outside the pale of the respective Churches, and the manifest change for the better in the national Church is bringing the two nearer together, so that the prospect of an ultimate reunion is hopefully contemplated by not a few on both sides.

We must now, however, call attention to the period embracing the secession of the Christian Reformed Church, and dating from the time of the great revival of 1830, which brought new life to thousands in the Church, and awakened others from their lethargy, so that gospel preaching from that time has made rapid and even astonishing progress.

During the past forty years, the demand for evangelical preaching has been steadily increasing. In some parts of the country most of the villages and especially of the city churches have replaced their Liberal and modem preachers by Evangelical men, as fast as circumstances permitted.

Wonderful to say, a majority of votes has been obtained in so many classes, that the Evangelicals are fast taking a position in the classical and provincial committees, and even in the Synod, where, however, they are still considerably in the minority.

The Liberal Synod itself has largely aided the movement, by a measure of which it certainly did not understand the true import, or it would have been less eager to adopt it. In order, namely, to obtain a more solid basis for the Church, as remodelled in 1816, it introduced a [250] popular vote by means of electoral colleges (appointed by all the male members of each congregation) for the choice of members of the consistory and of ministers. In a great number of places, and amongst them Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hague, and Leyden, the Liberals were forthwith outvoted in the consistories, and orthodox pastors elected by tremendous majorities.

This result must not, indeed, be rated too high. It is only too true that there are many who have no liking for Christianity, even in its most negative form, and who, for this reason, abstain from voting altogether, and allow the orthodox to have things very much their own way. But as neither coaxing nor scolding can make such men take more than a passing interest in church matters, the reign of Liberalism may be said to be fast drawing to a close.

This fact goes to explain certain phenomena to which we shall now advert.

There has been a great change in the bearing of the advanced Liberal party since its progress within the Church was, to all appearance, so suddenly checked. It is doing its utmost to bring the question between the Liberals and the orthodox to a final issue, by trying to have its own rights formally acknowledged by the Church government. Hitherto the Liberals have held their ground on sufferance. But this no longer satisfies, because the time of final defeat is at hand. “Shall Art. 11 of the constitution be repealed?” “Shall the power to refuse admission to candidates for membership, who do not accept the principal doctrines on which all Christian Churches agree, be taken out of the hands of the consistories?” “Shall sprinkling, apart from the use of the Divine name, be considered baptism?” “Shall [theological] minorities be represented in the eldership and ministry?”—such are some of the questions which are being agitated. Very radical proposals have been made, both to and by the Synod, and the result of this year’s deliberations is awaited with thrilling interest. No one is able to say what the result will be, and for a very obvious reason. The power is held at present by the moderate Liberal party, which has shown itself as much afraid of radical measures as the devil is of the cross, but always ends when pressed by taking ground against the orthodox. Much will depend upon the view it may take of the prospect before the dissenting members in the Church, as soon as orthodoxy is in the ascendant. It will rather use its remaining power to strike a fatal blow, than keep matters on their present footing, with the certainty that ere long the hated orthodox party will grasp the government.

The more advanced section of the party do not, however, make the task an easy one. Until lately, they did not seem to perceive any discrepancy between their extreme views and the formula of subscription. They had, at least, their own way of so explaining everything in regard to this and various other regulations, so as to accommodate themselves to the circumstances of the case. But all this has changed. They now insist upon [251] their rights. They appeal to the history of the past half-century, to the “principle of Protestantism,״ &c., and many have even left the Church of their own accord. Last year, for instance, two of their leading men, pastors at Amsterdam, established a so-called “free congregation,״ over which one of them became pastor.

But enough has been said to indicate the present position of affairs as between Liberals and orthodox. We must now introduce a new element into the discussion, and thereby broach a very delicate subject, namely, the internal division of the orthodox family. It is, indeed, painful to disclose the want of union between the brethren, especially as we ourselves cannot be deemed entirely impartial. Still, it is necessary to state the case, and that is all we shall here attempt to do.

When the revival of 1830 came, it found even the so-called orthodox very far from conforming to the doctrines of the Church. The doctrine of election was tacitly discarded, regeneration only silently admitted or implicitly denied, vital Christianity shunned. The revival sent the main body of the Church members to study the writings of the men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and amongst them many English and Scotch theologians, such as Rutherford, Owen, Love, Jonathan Edwards (American), Watson, and a host of others. But the better-educated and wealthier classes of society took up more modern writers, applying themselves meanwhile to various labours connected with foreign and domestic missions. The ministers, as a general rule, were very hostile to the reintroduction of old books and notions, and some were strongly opposed to lay labour.

Time brought a change for the better in the religious standing and character of the ministry. The preaching became more sound, evangelical, and warm, so that each new generation left its predecessor behind in the popular estimate. Still, very loose ideas were held upon the authority, and especially the inspiration, of the Bible. Election, though not formally denied, was considered a very dangerous theme to meddle with; and an unlimited atonement was held to be the condition of all evangelical preaching. In short, eclectic theology became popular, modified only by individual tastes and views.

The internal differences now referred to had existed all along during this period; but lately the older views have been brought more prominently into view by the representatives of what is now called the old school, including some of the most talented men of the Church. They are opposed by many, not only or chiefly on grounds of principle, but more generally because it is deemed untimely, unfraternal, and unsafe to bring into view what tends to divide those who accept the leading doctrines of the Gospel. Still they are daily gaining ground, and the indications are that the Church will ere long come back, not to 1816, but to 1618, as the starting-point of a normal development.

In order to judge between the two tendencies, it is imperative to keep in view the questions which are of necessity involved. [252]

Those who lay stress upon the “Christian” elements of doctrine, as they oppose these to those which are specially termed “Reformed,” accept the organisation of 1816, or at least count it enough to secure the power to bring an evangelical majority into the various ecclesiastical courts. The others wish to put the Church upon its proper basis, as laid down by the Synod of Dort. The former stand upon the ground of the Evangelical Alliance; the latter upon that of the symbols of faith.

We close with some account of the changes that have taken place, and are to take place, in the matter of theological training. This will show how the two principles we have pointed out come into practical collision with each other.

Last year the State, represented by the Chamber of Deputies, voted a new law, reorganising the three existing universities, and allowing the city of Amsterdam to establish another. By this law the Government embodied a theological department in each university to complete the circle of the sciences. Its theology, however, is bereft of everything but the name, and is entirely adapted to the modern views. Not only are dogmatical and practical theology altogether left out, as well as Church history, but the exegetics of the Old and New Testaments are now designated “the literature of the Hebrews and of the early Christian Church.”

A certain sum was, however, put by Government into the hands of the Synod, either to establish a seminary or to add some professorships to those created by the State on its own account. The Synod took the latter course, and had the hardihood withal to fill the places by Liberals—a measure which has given general dissatisfaction.

Three lines of conduct have been suggested by leading men, classed amongst the orthodox.

1st, To appoint two extraordinary professors at the University of Utrecht, in order to assist the young men in their studies.

2nd, To appoint two sound Reformed professors at the University of Amsterdam, where the Synod had appointed none.

3rd, To establish a theological school on the basis of our Reformed faith, as a first step toward the establishment of a regular free university.

The first plan is proposed by the leaders of what we have called the new school. It will, to all appearance, be set aside, not merely on account of the opposition it meets, but because of its own inherent weakness. The last is put forward by the old school, the party of the Reformed, and however great the difficulties on all sides, it seems to have, on the whole, the best chance of success.

Two friends of the cause have contributed 25,000 guilders, or £2000 each, and it has been astonishing to see how many ministers have given their hearty sympathy to this movement, although both the moneypower and the influence of revered names are in great measure on the other side. [253]

We feel, for many reasons, that this is the first thing to be done, and even now, in the midst of the conflict of opinions, everything indicates that the new institution will be no monument of partisanship, but an embodiment of the spirit of the Church and of the Gospel.

If matters here seem to English eyes somewhat in confusion, our friends will please remember our peculiar situation. After the Synod of Dort, Government has prevented us, for a period of 200 years, from having a national synod; Liberalism has so infected us, that we are only slowly coming to ourselves; our most staunch men had either left the Church, or were esteemed as pariahs; and lastly, an unhealthy individualism has ruled among us for years. Without derogating from the worth of men like Prof. van Oostersee and others, who are held in esteem even by those who wish, as they say, a more sound, historic, ecclesiastical basis,—who wish, in other words, to revive the Reformed Church;—we may safely say, that, there is a chasm between the original Dutch Church and the Church of the present day, and that the intervening development has been more or less abnormal, unnational, and eclectic.

Yet the Lord has not forsaken us. He is doing wonderful things. We may not anticipate the future. If He cast off our Church and country, the fault will be our own. But for His name’s sake, He may continue the work of revival, and we cannot but hope that He will do so, while we pray to Him, and solicit the interest of our evangelical brethren abroad, which we do the more readily, because in our specific aims we are entirely in harmony with what they believe and seek.

Ph. J. Hoedemaker, D.D.

[1] “Liberal” in Holland has nearly the same meaning as “Rationalist” in England.

[2] The various cases and decisions we here refer to, testify to the shrewdness of the reigning party. Whilst the right of impeachment was left intact, offenders were so protected by a series of subterfuges, as to leave the real question open.