[An earlier version of this article appeared in the newsletter of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.]
In 1924 Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids was the largest congregation in that denomination. It had 2400 members, 1583 by profession of faith, distributed among 504 families. Just one year later those numbers had dropped 75%—to 565, 390, and 142, respectively. The reason was one of the greatest controversies in CRC history, a dispute over the doctrine of common grace. A substantial majority of Eastern Avenue members defied the CRC Synod’s pronouncement on the matter and as a result were ousted from the denomination.
As the CRC takes up another major controversy at this month’s Synod, Eastern Avenue and some of its church neighbors face the prospect of being severely disciplined again. This time the issue involves human sexuality. Eastern Avenue’s open-and-affirming stance rejects the 2022 Synod’s declaration that the Reformed Confessions prohibit even covenantally committed same-sex relationships, that affirming the same merits church discipline and even jeopardizes one’s eternal salvation. In that light, it is worth revisiting the common grace controversy of a hundred years ago to glean what wisdom we can. Two major ironies hover over the picture. First, Eastern Avenue today stands on the progressive side of the question; back then it led the conservatives—some might say, the reactionaries. Second, just five years before, it had been led by one of the most progressive ministers in the denomination.
That man was Johannes Groen— American-born, Dutch-speaking, and pastor of Eastern Avenue from 1900 to 1919. This was a hopeful, creative era in American history, and Groen thought the church could make notable contributions to it. After all, the 900 students (!!) he had every year in catechism would soon be adults with great potential for Christian witness, and the challenges of making that witness fresh and relevant would help seal their Christian commitment. A win-win: the church could help the world and be renewed in the bargain. To warrant all this theologically, Groen emphasized the doctrine of common grace—that God bestowed real favor upon all people, not just upon those elect to eternal life; and that Christians could therefore work side by side with others toward the common good of society.
Groen’s progressive stance could land him in hot water. He was criticized roundly, for instance, for suggesting that CRC workers might join existing labor unions rather than form a distinctly Christian union of their own. Things got personal after he endorsed women’s suffrage. Walking in the neighborhood one day, he was shot at by a neighbor who was said to be quarreling with his wife. Groen was not wounded physically but the psychic shock was one of the reasons he soon left Eastern Avenue for the sunnier climes of First CRC Los Angeles.
Groen’s successor was a man of entirely opposite theology, and temperament. Herman Hoeksema had grown up in harsh circumstances in the Netherlands, son of a pious mother and wastrel father who left the family in poverty. Herman emigrated to America in 1904 and found himself working in steel construction in Chicago—a tough trade in a tough town. When he showed gifts of mind and speech at his local church’s young people’s society, he was sent to the CRC’s seminary in Grand Rapids for training as a minister. He had the advantage of being willing (unlike Groen) to preach in English at a time when more and more churches were making that transition.
Before coming to Eastern Avenue, Hoeksema created a stir at Fourteenth Street CRC in Holland, Michigan for refusing to let the American flag be stationed in the sanctuary—this during World War I, when patriotic pressures were high and rising. When local leaders denounced his stance, he clarified that the flag might be posted in the church’s social hall or educational wing but not where people worshiped. The church was a body of all tribes and tongues with primary loyalty to the kingdom of heaven, not to any earthly nation. Hoeksema also stood out in denominational affairs as a stalwart defender of classic Reformed orthodoxy. He led a Synodical committee that denounced the “end-times” theology characteristic of American Fundamentalism, erupting all around amid the cataclysm of world war. At the same time, he rounded harshly on anyone proposing positive engagement with “the world.” That included, by name, Johannes Groen.
It also included Dr. Ralph Janssen, professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. Using his column in The Banner, Hoeksema fueled rising suspicions that Janssen was teaching “higher criticism”—that is, so emphasizing the cultural conditioning of the Bible as to deny its unique authority and truthfulness. When Synod investigated the matter and found Janssen not guilty, Hoeksema pronounced him “not innocent” either, and joined with some other ministers and Janssen’s faculty colleagues to prosecute him further. There followed an intense pamphlet warfare in which Janssen gave as well as he got. The issue came to a head in 1922 when the Synod demoted him, as much on procedural as substantive grounds.
While the struggle left Hoeksema victorious, it also left him vulnerable, for along the way Janssen had caught the source of Hoeksema’s fire: his denial of common grace. The Old Testament could not possibly show borrowings from neighboring cultures (as Janssen taught) because Israel had nothing in common with surrounding nations—because, more generally, the people of God were set apart from and over against “the world.” Hoeksema took Janssen’s accusation as a commendation. His control-verse from Scripture was Malachi 1:2-3, echoed in Romans 9:13: “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” Where people like Janssen and Groen saw history as one mixed stream of human life, Hoeksema saw two. There were the real Christians, the true church growing out of God’s decree of election, and there was everyone else, the lost world, growing out of God’s decree of reprobation. The two could have nothing to do with each other since they operated by antithetical principles and shared no moral ground. Everything the non-saved did promoted sin—indeed, was sin—for all their apparent good deeds either stemmed from self-interest or served in the long run to build up the forces of unbelief.
Hoeksema’s words were too harsh for most of his former collaborators against Janssen, who quietly peeled away from him. But three members of his own congregation found him downright wrong and paid him a visit in January 1924 to tell him so. When he rejected their protest on procedural grounds, they took it to the consistory—and received a scolding for violating the rule of Matthew 18 (vv. 15-17) on how to proceed with accusations of sin. Indeed, said the consistory, it was the three brethren who were in sin, and they should confess the same to the consistory, not as a trio but one by one. The three countered that as this was a church (that is, a public, not a Matthew 18 private) matter, it should be addressed publicly by the body appointed to do so, namely, the consistory. Not so, came the reply. The three were put under censure and barred from the Lord’s Supper.
The plaintiffs appealed to Classis Grand Rapids East, which found the faulty procedure at hand to belong to Hoeksema and the consistory. It told them to lift the censure and deal with the theological substance of the matter. Instead, these new plaintiffs appealed to Synod. So did others whose petitions had been rejected for one reason or another. In short, the Synod of 1924 had a full docket of overtures and appeals about common grace, from proponents and opponents of the doctrine alike.
At a grueling three-week meeting in Kalamazoo, the Synod of 1924 formulated its famous “three points” on the issue. God (1) does restrain the outworking of sin on earth by his gracious intervention and (2) shows favor of a non-saving sort to the unregenerate who therefore (3) are capable of civil, though not saving, righteousness. But it also found Hoeksema soundly Reformed on the basics and not worthy of church discipline, even as it cautioned him against one-sidedness.
That accomplished, the three censured Eastern Avenue members petitioned the consistory for exoneration, were rebuffed again, and appealed to Classis again. Meanwhile, Hoeksema started up his own magazine in which he blasted Synod’s decision. The whole congregation was in turmoil, with 800 members signing a petition in favor of the dominie and only 92 another petition against him. Kids took up the battle too, scribbling graffiti on alleyway fences around the church. And so things boiled along until November when Classis ordered the consistory to lift the censure on the three members and told Hoeksema to comply with, or at least stop publicly denying, the three points. Given a month to prepare a response, Hoeksema gave Classis a 90-minute oration on why he and the consistory rejected its edicts. Classis promptly found him guilty of insubordination, deposed the consistory, and called for the congregation’s faithful remnant to organize anew.
The affair then rolled over into the civil courts and got down to brass-tacks: who had legal possession of Eastern Avenue’s property? Lawyers dueled theologians, Hoeksema protested being ridiculed on the stand, the president of the 1924 Synod was reduced to double-speak, and newspapers eagerly parlayed the whole business to a gleeful readership. For his part, Kent County Circuit Court judge Major L. Dunham found the CRC’s meticulous record-keeping as commendable as its theology was bewildering. On the issue, however, he declared Classis to have due jurisdiction over the consistory and took the latter’s actions—buying property for a new building and funding other dissidents in the CRC—to amount to a withdrawal from the denomination. Accordingly, he awarded the property to the loyal minority.
The majority appealed the decision, but in late December 1925 the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against them. The loyalists immediately took possession of the building, and the ousted majority had to celebrate Christmas in the Franklin (now King) Park lodge, consoling themselves that, after all, Joseph and Mary had been turned away too. Exactly one year later, they moved into their new building at the corner of Franklin Street and Fuller Avenue on Grand Rapids’ southeast side, half a mile from the old place. Made of the same red brick, its sheer walls towering up over the corner still bear clear architectural testimony that this was a fortress set off against “the world.” That is the testimony that the denomination which stemmed from Hoeksema’s witness, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, proudly bears today.
1924 and 2023?
History does not amount to prediction, but it does give us points to ponder in the present situation.
First of all, the importance of procedure, as Scott Hoezee has recently shown regarding Synod 2022. In the common grace controversy both sides appealed to this point, and both complained when the opposition did so as well. It is important not to use procedure to dodge the substance of a case. Remembering, at the same time, that respecting procedure—operating by agreed-upon rules—shows respect for other people, a not-inconsiderable point in Christian ethics.
Second, it is important even as it might be difficult to sort out the powers, and the limits, that different church courts (consistory, classis, and synod) have in the proper governance of Reformed churches. After his ouster, Herman Hoeksema complained that a classis has no right to depose a consistory. Can a synod (as one overture to Synod 2023 proposes for Grand Rapids East) break up a classis and parcel out its congregations to neighboring classes for proper discipline?
Third, as the press in 1924 and 1925 all too eagerly demonstrated, it hurts the cause of the faith when appeals to true doctrine devolve into fights over property. These might be inevitable, but they are not to be welcomed.
Finally, it is no easy thing, and never one accomplished for all time, to sort out the proper relationship between the church and “the world.” There are many “worlds” out there, and bracing ourselves against one might find us stepping over into another. People at the time and later noted that the common grace controversy was entwined with the situation of an immigrant church confronting “Americanization.” The CRC, with other immigrant communities, had just passed through the patriotic smelter of World War I and now, in the 1920s, lived in the sometimes-decadent aftermath of postwar disillusion. It was inevitable that the CRC had to take up anew the perennial question of Christ and culture, and they did so in their preferred mode, theological argument.
Americanization was long thought to be a good thing, with progressives for it and Hoeksema’s party against it. But for many progressives at the time, World War I was a good thing too, as was Prohibition. Herman Hoeksema had his doubts about both and has been proven right. Thus, the “reactionary” of 1918 took a position that looks boldly progressive a century later; history has a way of scuttling our quick correlations between religious and political stances. But then it scrambles projected legacies too. If Christian Reformed voters have probably conformed to the 80% pro-Trump pattern of white-Evangelical voting, Hoeksema’s heirs in the PRC have likely come in at 99.99% favor for the most rabid and soulless American nationalist to inhabit the Oval Office since Andrew Jackson.
Americanization, acculturation, inevitably envelops us all. The broader question at hand in 1924 was, which America were the immigrants joining? That translates exactly into our own era: which part of “the world” are we comfortable with? Which part do we do we foreswear? And what sort of “world” do the issues at hand at Synod 2023 represent, for both parties?