The Canadian Reformed Churches - A Brief History - A Unity Committee Report - Rev. W. den Hollander
with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 15, July 23, 1999
Historical Background in the History of the Churches
in The Netherlands
In order to establish some kind of a starting-point, the Union of 1892 would be an important moment to consider. The churches of the 1st Secession (1834) and of the 2nd Secession (1886) found each other in this Union of 1892. United they continued under the name "The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands" (RCN). The Holy Scriptures, as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity, were their basis; the Church Order of Dort (1618-1619) was their Order of Cooperation.
In view of later developments it is important to note that a group of 1st Secession churches did not join the Union: the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerken (Free Reformed Churches). They first wanted to deal with the views of Dr. A. Kuyper on the covenant and the church. He held to the idea of the pluriformity of the church: i.e. the church has more forms, shown in the existence of churches which live separately and hold to a greater or lesser purity of the truth yet not the full truth. Hence, at first Kuyper did not want to use the confessional language of "true and false church" (BC, Art. 29), for example, in the case of the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk. The people of the 1st Secession had declared that this church showed the marks of a false church by persecuting the faithful believers. It was one of the main reasons for their secession. Kuyper and others led in the 2nd Secession only because the church had become a State church with a State government. Kuyper’s view on the covenant differed from the confessions as well, he admitted, namely in that he advocated a covenant with the elect only. It is regrettable that these churches did not join the Union. They should have joined, considering the basis adopted for the Union, and considering the fact that the churches of the Union did not accept Kuyper’s views.
The influence of Dr. A. Kuyper was not limited to his views. In 1880 he also established the Free University. At this University Kuyper wanted to establish his Calvinistic world view, "reformed principles" in all departments of scientific pursuit. At the same time he used this institute of higher learning also to spread his views concerning the church and covenant. It had a department of Theology, which was recognized as institution for the training of the ministry beside the official Theological College for that purpose in Kampen (founded in 1854). Thus two "trends of thinking" developed, more or less identified as 1st and 2nd Secession thinking. The first or A-trend held to the confessional understanding of the true and false church (BC, Art. 29), rejecting the pluriformity of the church and the idea of the visible and invisible church. It also maintained that the covenant was established with the believers and their seed (leaving room for non-elect as members in the covenant as well). The second or B-trend followed Kuyper’s views on church and covenant. These two trends became apparent in the local churches' preference in the choice of ministers, as well as in the magazines circulating in the homes of the members (De Heraut of Kuyper, De Wachter of the A-trend, De Reformatie of the new generation in the 1920’s). At the General Synod 1905 a so-called Pacification Formula was adopted, stating that the children of believing parents were to be treated as born again until the opposite would become evident. (Note: this statement still partially maintained the view of presumptive regeneration!) This statement was advisory in character and was not binding.
Later developments showed changes in regard to the way church polity was applied. In the case of Dr. J.G. Geelkerken, who denied the speaking of the serpent in Genesis 3 and who spoke of a symbolic account in Genesis, the authority of the Word was at stake. The Synod of Assen 1926 rejected his teaching. This same synod, however, also made a decision which was contrary to the Reformed church polity. It deposed the elders and deacons who cooperated or acquiesced in the decision of Geelkerken’s consistory to maintain him in his office. It instructed the elders who agreed with Synod’s decision to form a consistory by election of elders. Synod, thus, acted as a super-consistory, even deposing Dr. Geelkerken of his office. Also this changed church polity became an issue in 1942-1944.
During the 1920’s a movement was under way of "younger scholars" (called "movement of the younger"), who took a critical look at the ideas of Kuyper. Among them were people like K. Schilder, M.B. Van 't Veer, S.G. de Graaf, C. Veenhof, A. Janse, and others (also older leaders like Prof. Dr. S. Greydanus). One of their points of discussion was again Kuyper’s thoughts on the Covenant of Grace. In his view God established this covenant with the elect in Christ from eternity. Since the elect cannot be determined, the church presumes that all the children of believers have a seed of regeneration in their hearts and baptizes them on the ground of presumptive regeneration. If these children are shown to be unbelievers later on, this baptism was invalid. In line with this view, Kuyper believed an invisible church consisting of all the elect who have been, are, and shall be born. Members of the invisible church are the real covenant people. They are found in all instituted churches which are visible and form together the church which is only known to God. The criticism voiced against these views maintained the Scriptural confession of the Covenant of Grace as established with the believers and their seed (including people like Cain, Ishmael, Esau, covenant children who later rejected the promises of the covenant). They all received God’s promises, sealed in the Old Testament by circumcision and in the New Testament by baptism. Baptism, then, is not a sign and seal of what the Holy Spirit has or is working in the hearts but of God’s promises in his Word. Covenant children are called and obliged to accept these promises. These promises, however, should not be confused with the fulfilment of what is promised. Only those who believe them share in them and keep the covenant demands as well. Preaching should hold up these promises and demands! They must be proclaimed with the command to repent and believe! Also God’s covenant blessings and curses must be proclaimed.
In line with this covenant concept these "younger scholars" emphasized the history of redemption in which the Son of God gathers a church by his Word and Spirit, in the unity of the true faith. As in the Old Testament, the church still is a covenant assembly and congregation of believers among whom there are hypocrites, who are in the church but not of the church. They are members of the covenant who received the promises but who do not share in their fulfilment as long as they persist in their unbelief. Israel was God’s covenant people in Egypt. They were all redeemed from bondage but did not all enter the promised land. Many died in unbelief in the desert. They were the church in the desert (Acts 7:38). The heart of many, however, turned back to Egypt (vs. 39). This proves sufficiently that it is not all Israel that is called Israel, even though they all were covenant and church people!
The church is a gathering, which is a continuous action of Christ in history. This church has officebearers, proclaims the Word, administers the Sacraments and exercises discipline. These characteristics are so inherent with the Scriptural teaching concerning the church that it rules out an invisible church as in Kuyper’s view. Those who criticized Kuyper and his followers rejected a "theory" about the church and returned to what the normative Word revealed about the church, and to its summary in the confessions.
At the General Synod 1936 the controversy about these differing views became an object for fierce debates. It led to the appointment of a committee which had to examine the differences in doctrine. The synod decided to do this, even though the churches did not ask for it. Here again the phenomenon of hierarchy reared its head. Even when the war broke out the pleas from among the churches to delay discussions on these differences fell on deaf ears, and Synod again decided to pursue this examination. The Synod of 1939 (Sneek) perpetuated itself until 1943 (Utrecht), and continued to deal with matters which the churches did not place on its table. On June 8th, 1942, Synod pronounced a decision about these differences in doctrine. It declared Kuyper’s teachings about the covenant and church to be the only acceptable (scriptural) view. It was a decision made without the authority and initiative of the churches, and even without the will of the churches! The situation which existed since 1905 was changed to a situation in which everyone was forced to teach this unscriptural view as being the only correct one. Objections brought in against this decision (to the same Synod still, namely in 1943!) were swept aside. Newly ordained ministers had to declare that they agreed with the decisions of Synod. Also a "Clarification of Sentiments," reiterating the Scriptural explanation of these points of doctrine was ignored! Finally, faithful ministers, elders, professors were suspended ... by Synod! The persecution which occurred in the 16th and 19th century repeated itself! This led to another Reformation, to the "Act of Liberation and Return," on August 11th, 1944, in The Hague.
Immigration and Affiliation
When Dutch immigrants from the RCN(Lib) came to Canada, they did not desire to set up a new church, but sought to join an existing one. Many joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), for that had always been their North American sister church. After it became clear from CRC synodical decisions that the CRC chose the side of the RCN(Syn) and considered the RCN(Lib) a new church and not a legitimate continuation of the Reformed Churches, many Liberated people who had joined the CRC left and the first Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) were established in the 1950s. Already at the first broader assembly, "Classis Canada," the decision was made that some time in the future the CanRC should direct a serious exhortation to the CRC, calling it back from the path it had chosen to walk with the synodically bound Dutch churches. This decision was fulfilled by the third General Synod of the CanRC, Hamilton 1962.
In the appeal, which was sent to Synod 1963 of the CRC (with copies going to all the consistories), this history to the institution of the CanRC was reviewed, while a strong warning went out in regard to influences from the synodical sister churches in the Netherlands upon proposed changes to a revised Church Order, together with a plea that the unity may be restored. Although initially good progress could be observed in the talks between the committees established by the CanRC and the CRC, the dialogue came to a grinding halt in 1969 when the CRC General Synod urged the CanRC to consider establishing correspondence with the RCN(Syn) "in light of the changed attitude of these churches towards the RCN(Lib)." Then in 1974 General Synod Toronto of the CanRC decided to send a Christian appeal to the Christian Reformed community, calling the CRC back from the unreformed way in which it was moving. This appeal, however, remained unheeded.
It took almost two decades (till the establishment of an Alliance of Reformed Churches), before new attempts could be made to seek unity with members and local churches (belonging to the Alliance) who wanted to remain faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed Confessions. These contacts have been blessed, especially since the secession of these Alliance churches and the establishing of a federation of United Reformed Churches in North America.
Among the early immigrants in the 1950’s others had joined the Protestant Reformed Church and new congregations were established in Hamilton and Chatham, Ontario, but here too they ran into great difficulties when the Protestant Reformed Church adopted a Declaration of Principles (in 1950) which these new immigrants could not in good conscience accept. This was because the Declaration contained the same Kuyperian idea of the covenant with the elect which was rejected in 1943-44! When appeals against this Declaration were unsuccessful, Canadian Reformed congregations were established in Chatham and the Hamilton areas.
The Federation of Canadian Reformed Churches
As far as the ecclesiastical history of the Canadian Reformed Churches is concerned, we can note that on November 14, 1950, the first "Classis Canada" was held and on November 4, 1954, the first Synod in Homewood/Carman, Manitoba. At this Synod the Church Order of Dort was adopted, and the first decisions were made to come to a common Book of Praise, a Theological training, and a common Bible Translation (KJV). A sister church relationship was established with churches in the Netherlands, South-Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and Brazil. Since that first synod ecclesiastical assemblies such as Classes were held in East and West. The more churches were instituted and ministers arrived to serve these churches, the more a federation took shape which could function according to the order of cooperation set out in the Church Order of Dordt. In 1958 the next General Synod was held and the churches assisted each other in resolving difficulties. The churches continued to organize a church life according to the Reformed principles underlying this Church Order.
At the heart of the life of the churches, however, is the proclamation of the gospel. Central in the preaching is the covenant relationship between the LORD and his people. Especially as the gain of the history leading up to the Liberation of 1944, the preaching which the churches pursued and promoted may be characterized as redemptive-historical. In it the history of redemption, the history of God’s revelation, the history of the church comes to God’s covenant people in this time in order to show the faithfulness of the LORD to his covenant promises. These promises were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all God’s promises are "Yes" and "Amen." The gospel of salvation is proclaimed with the command of repentance and belief! By faith, the LORD makes known his covenant to his children, granting them to live in intimacy with the LORD. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the life of the believers is sanctified unto a new obedience according to God’s covenant demands.
By the ministry of the Word, God places his people before Himself, strengthening them in their faith, enriching them in their life with Him in his faithfulness to his promises, motivating them in their responsibility and calling to live in faith, hope, and love before Him. In this way the LORD restores the relationship and responsibilities as laid down in his creation of man to his honour and glory. That’s how the preaching displayed the way the covenant functions: it is one-sided in its origin but two-sided in its existence. The salvation of God’s covenant people lies in the functioning of this covenant relationship. Thus the preaching helps the believers to grow and increase in the LORD.
In a redemptive-historical approach the Scripture accounts are proclaimed so that the congregation may know the LORD as the Deliverer of his covenant people, on whom He works for the strengthening, refining, of their faith. God’s covenant people learn to deal with their guilt, with the temptations in their life, with the LORD’s way for their life. Then in Christ they find the comfort of salvation from sin and death and the renewal of their life by the power of his Holy Spirit! The children of the LORD learn to live with the promises of the LORD! These promises the LORD still fulfils in the life of the believer; these promises also are the basis for the believer’s trust and confidence with regard to the future of God’s Kingdom and work. In this context the preaching may assure the children of the covenant of the certain fulfilment of the promises signified and sealed by Holy Baptism as well. Hence, a preaching which so approaches the congregation as the covenant people of the LORD does not need to fear the danger of covenant-automatism.
Also in the exposition of the doctrine of salvation, as this is done in the afternoon-service, this life in the covenant with the LORD is expounded. In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess the only comfort in life and death for those who know their sins and misery, seek their salvation outside of themselves in Jesus Christ, and live in thankfulness for their deliverance in Christ. Throughout, the doctrine of justification by faith alone in all the promises of the gospel is paired with a walk in covenant holiness and obedience in Christ. Therefore, also in the Catechism preaching it is this covenantal walk in communion with God which is proclaimed. It pursues the renewal of the whole man, who finds his life in Christ, embraces Him and all his benefits, and so has communion with God through Him! Hence in the believers' songs of praise, derived from the book of Psalms expressing the covenantal faithfulness of the LORD, and in their prayers of faith they express their daily intimacy with God for their walk and talk.
It is this proclamation of the gospel which the Canadian Reformed Churches still wish to preserve. In the weekly preaching the message of the gospel is passed on. Also the needs of the congregation are placed in the light of God’s way in the covenant of grace with his people. With the rich promises of the gospel the congregation may be comforted and encouraged. The congregation is addressed by the LORD, her covenant God, in his claim on their hearts and life and in his demands for their walk of life. In that message of salvation He is coming to his people from week to week to deliver them from sin and to redeem his people by his grace in Jesus Christ!
Training for the Ministry of the Word
Since the first Synod of the CanRC the training for the ministry was a matter on the agenda of each following Synod. Right from the beginning, two leading principles were that the training for the ministry should be provided by the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ and that the future ministers of the Word should receive a good academic training. Only those persons were to be admitted to the ecclesiastical examinations who held a Bachelor of Divinity degree. The Synod of Hamilton, 1962, decided to set up a provisional training. A number of ministers were appointed to teach, while they continued to serve their congregations. Synod also set as an admission requirement the Bachelor of Arts degree or its equivalent. It was also decided to set up a library for the benefit of teachers and students.
On Wednesday, November 20, 1968, the Synod of Orangeville decided to establish a full-fledged Theological College of the CanRC and to appoint three full-time professors and two lecturers. On Wednesday, September 10, 1969, this College was officially opened at Hamilton, Ontario. At the present the faculty is made up of four full-time professors. The training at the Theological College is based on the Holy Scriptures, as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity. It stands in the tradition of men like Calvin, Guido de Bres, Ursinus, Olevianus, Hendrik de Cock, Herman Bavinck, A. Kuyper, S. Greydanus, and K. Schilder. The College, as servant of the churches, considers itself called to explore scientifically the riches given by God in the Reformation of the church to the best of its ability, in order that these riches may be a blessing for the life of the church in this twentieth century. It also desires to withstand all the assaults against Holy Scripture, which are prevalent in our time. The instruction at the College stresses above all the preparation of the students for their practical service as Ministers of the Word. The churches are convinced that this preparation should aim at the highest possible academic standards.
In order to develop the common bond of faith and promote the unity among the federation of churches, a first issue of a common magazine was published on June 1952, Canadian Reformed Magazine, which became Clarion in 1973. This magazine is published by Premier Printing Ltd., at Winnipeg, Manitoba. Study materials are published by the Inter-League Publication Board, a publishing association established in London, Ontario, for the societies in the CanRC as well as for family studies and for personal studies. The Mission News is a publication published by Premier Printing, containing reports from missionaries and Mission Boards established in the course of the years by the churches (and supporting churches) of Surrey, British Columbia; Toronto, Ontario and Hamilton, Ontario, while the church of Smithers, British Columbia, is involved in a home mission project among the First Nations people living in the area. Other prominent magazines in the CanRC are: Reformed Perspective, a magazine for the Christian family (since 1980); Horizons, a magazine for the women’s societies; In Holy Array, a magazine for the Young Peoples' Societies,; Diaconia, a quarterly for officebearers; Evangel, a magazine issued four times a year by the "Reformed Evangelism Taskforce" formed in the Fraser Valley, BC., and distributed by local congregations in hospitals, offices, waiting rooms, etc.
As a result of ongoing discussions about the church’s task in foreign mission, the church of Toronto became the first "sending church" on January 16, 1958. On May 18, 1960, the Rev. H. Knigge was ordained as missionary for the work in Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaya). He worked there for 15 years as Toronto’s missionary. In 1977 the Rev. H. Versteeg took over the work, especially in Manggelum, Irian Jaya. He worked there for twenty years. In 1998 Toronto, supported by the churches in Classis Ontario-North, sent out the Rev. S. 'T Hart to Papua New Guinea, for mission work in Port Moresby and Ekoro.
Meanwhile, the church of Surrey had become a sending church, supported by the churches in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. In 1970, they sent out the Rev. C. Van Spronsen to work as a missionary in Brazil. The Rev. Van Spronsen returned from the mission field in Brazil in 1978. His work was continued and expanded by several missionaries: Rev. R.F. Boersema (1977-1997), Rev. P.K. Meijer (1978-1996), and Rev. E. Venema (1993-present). Rev. Van Spronsen followed up a call extended to him by the church at Smithers, British Columbia. After working there in the regular ministry for five years, he became a home missionary for the native people in 1983 (till 1987). From October 1987 till August 1992 the Rev. M.K. Marren continued this work. Since that time mission workers maintained the project among the Indians.
In 1978 the church of Hamilton, Ontario, became sending church, supported by the churches in Classis Ontario-South. They sent out the Rev. J.G.R. Kroeze in 1988, also to work as a missionary in Brazil. After having worked there for 10 years, he will be returning to the regular ministry in 1999, and will be succeeded by the Rev. A. De Graaf.
Another development went underway in the field of education, resulting in the opening of the first Canadian Reformed School, the William of Orange School at New Westminster, British Columbia, on Sept. 7, 1955. In the course of the years parents in most, if not all, congregations established school societies with the objective of providing reformed education for their children. In line with the redemptive historical preaching heard in the proclamation of the gospel on Sunday, a covenantal education was promoted which pursued among the covenant youth of the church the promises and demands belonging to the covenant relationship which the LORD established with them as children of believing parents. Pursuing the unity of life in the covenant with the LORD, schools were established in which such education was maintained in unity and harmony with the instruction at home and in the church. Where possible, such as in places like Hamilton, Smithers, Fergus, Langley, Edmonton, Grand Rapids, Winnipeg, and Carman, also high schools came into existence, at which the required academic instruction was based on the same basis of the Holy Scriptures and the Three Forms of Unity. In order to supply the required staff for (especially the elementary) schools, a Reformed Teachers' College has been in operation since 1981.
According to the Yearbook of the Churches, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches had a membership of 14,722 at the end of 1997 (of which 7,801 were communicant members), spread over 48 congregations, divided into 5 Classes, with 46 active ministers and missionaries, 10 retired ministers, and 4 full-time professors at the Theological College.
For the Committee for the Promotion of Ecclesiastical Unity of the Canadian Reformed Churches,