Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 15

The Christian Reformed Church


The Dutch Reformed constitute the main branch of continental Presbyterianism also known as the Reformed. Historically they have had a significant influence on Presbyterians in this country. There were Dutch Reformed men, such as VanTil and Kuiper, in alliance with Machen on the faculty of Westminster. The main Dutch reformed denomination in America, and the one of most concern for our study, is the Christian Reformed Church.

The Hervormde Kerk

The Hervormde Kerk (The Reformed Church) is the old mainline Dutch state church. It was formed in the middle of the sixteenth century during the Great Protestant Reformation. It was thoroughly Reformed and Calvinistic, and Presbyterian in its church polity. It was similar to the Church of Scotland except it used continental creeds instead of the Westminster standards. It subscribed to the three Forms of Unity; the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. These are all Reformed creeds, but constitute a less detailed, less theologically precise, less mature expression of that faith than the later Westminster standards.

This church was born amidst great suffering and persecution. Like the Presbyterians of Scotland they had to resort to armed meetings in the fields to be able to worship and express their faith. The Netherlands were ruled by Spain at the time. The Spanish king, Philip II, was a bigoted Catholic determined to exterminate the Netherlanders rather than tolerate heresy. He sent the Duke of Alva into the country with an army to suppress the Protestants and institute the Inquisition. Tens of thousands of Dutch Christians were brutally martyred for their faith. This reign of blood and terror finally provoked the revolt of the United Netherlands and the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence. The revolt was led by William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, and a retainer of the Emperor Charles V , the father of Philip II. He was assassinated by an agent of Philip II and the revolt continued under his son Prince Maurits. It took forty years of war (1568-1608) to achieve their defacto independence, followed by a ten year truce and then thirty more years of fighting in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that involved most of Europe. During this time the Hervormde Church grew and was established solidly as the Dutch state church.

The Belgic Confession

This confession was authored by Guido deBres, a Dutch Reformed minister in 1561. It is called the Belgic confession because he wrote it in Belgium (then part of the United Netherlands) while hiding in an attic from the Spanish Inquisition. It was partly based on the Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches of France authored by John Calvin and published in 1559. It is a beautiful and sound expression of the Reformed faith, but, as the product of one man under duress, it cannot be compared to the later Westminster Confession of Faith. The latter was the product of the best Reformed minds of several nations deliberating over a period of years a century later, when the Reformed faith was more developed. The Belgic Confession was adopted by the Hervormde Kerk as its confession of faith at the great Synod of Dortrecht.

The Heidelberg Catechism

This catechism was authored by two men, Ursinius and Olevianus in 1563. It was authored in Heidelberg, the capitol of the Palatinate, one of the German States comprising the Holy Roman Empire. This state was unusual in that although it was Protestant it adhered to the Calvinistic branch of the Reformation rather than the Lutheran, like other German Protestant states. The Elector, Frederick III, commissioned it for use in his realm. It is not known for its theological precision, but is valued as a more subjective, devotional, and heartfelt expression of the Reformed faith.

The Canons of Dort

The Hervormde Kerk held a great synod in the Dutch city of Dortrecht from 1618-1619. At this synod the church adopted all three Forms of Unity. The canons of the Synod of Dort were its official pronouncements with respect to the issue of Arminianism. A Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, had in recent years, before his death, been quietly challenging the Calvinist orthodoxy, and propounding an alternative soteriology, that has come to be identified with him as Arminianism. The Synod strongly condemned his teachings and set forth the historic doctrine in these canons.

Although theologically the Synod was a great success, politically it was more controversial. The confederation of the United Netherlands was based upon religious liberty, at least at the federal level. Each province could therefore decide religious matters for itself. For the federal government to call a synod to develop and adopt doctrinal standards to be imposed on the nation was seen as unconstitutional. Jan van Ouden-Barneveldt, a leading statesman in the province of Holland opposed the synod on political grounds. He was later judicially murdered by Maurits on trumped up charges of treason.

De Afscheiding (The Separation)

In 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars and the liberation of the Netherlands from French control there were significant changes. The Hervormde Kerk had already become more rationalistic and legalistic based upon the prevailing Enlightenment philosophy. Now the restored monarchy reorganized the Hervormde Kerk giving it a decidedly Erastian character. The growing reaction to these developments led to a secession of a few ministers and their flocks in 1834. This secession was called the “afscheiding”. The crisis that precipitated the schism was over the use of uninspired hymns. The Hervormde Kerk was now requiring all its ministers to use these hymns in their services. The ministers of the afscheiding to a man refused to obey this requirement. Many were disciplined and suspended from the ministry. It was no longer possible for them to stay in the Hervormde Kerk. For their stand they were persecuted by church, state, and society. They became known as the “Kerk onder het kruis” (The church under the cross) because of their suffering. They were denied the right to meet, their ministers were arrested, jailed, and fined, and their members reviled and ostracized by society in general. They paid a high price for their fidelity to the Reformed faith and the word of God.

The Gereformeerde Kerk (GKN)

By the latter part of the nineteenth century the Hervormde Kerk was overwhelmingly liberal, rationalistic, and modernistic. A young minister, named Abraham Kuyper, educated in a liberal seminary, took his first pastorate. There, by the witness of a godly lady in his flock, he was converted to true faith in Christ. Kuyper became a zealous apostle for reform in the church and eventually led a massive exodus from the state church in 1886. The issue was much the same as it had been with Machen in the PCUSA a few decades later, Christianity versus liberalism. Kuyper was a gifted theologian, writer, editor, and organizer. His accomplishments were prodigious. He founded a Reformed newspaper and magazine of which he was the editor. He founded a church (the GKN), a new Christian University (the Free University of Amsterdam), and a political party (the Anti-Revolutionary Party) opposed to Enlightenment philosophy, the proponents of the French Revolution, and their Marxist heirs. He became Prime Minister of the Netherlands shortly after the turn of the century. Unlike the churches of the afscheiding, which were led by those committed to the original Reformation doctrines, the GKN came out of a battle with modernism and never fully restored the doctrines of the Great Protestant Reformation.

The Christian Reformed Church

The men of the afscheiding were greatly persecuted. Although they appealed to the authorities for their rights under the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty, their requests were denied. Their ministers were frequently arrested and imprisoned and fined. Their members were ostracized and lost their jobs etc. Like the English Puritans two centuries earlier, it was finally decided that emigration to America to escape the persecution be considered. Under two of their ministers, VanRaalte and Scholte, they led their people to form Dutch settlements in Holland, Michigan and Pella, Iowa respectively. They struggled on what was then the frontier to build settlements in the wilderness, and grew and established their churches in America.

There already existed a Dutch Reformed church in America, the Reformed Church of America. This church existed mainly in New York State and was composed of the descendents of the original Dutch settlers in the New Netherlands and New Amsterdam (New York City). However this church was more like the Hervormde Kerk and didn’t maintain all the distinctives that the men of the afscheiding had suffered to maintain. Nonetheless the lure of church union, additional fellowship, a source of ministerial candidates, and the support of the prosperous churches in the East for the struggling settlers induced them to join with the RCA in 1850. The fact that the RCA was more conservative than the mother church in the Netherlands and not so infected with liberalism and rationalism made the union more palatable.

Although the ministers overwhelmingly supported the union a number of the laity objected. They were concerned that the RCA was not truly Reformed. The issues ranged from the regulative principle of worship (They objected to the use of uninspired hymns and choirs versus congregational singing), to the tolerance of membership in the Masonic Lodge, private baptisms, and neglect of catechetical instruction and regular preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism, a Dutch Reformed tradition. They were also disturbed by the practical neglect of the doctrines of election and predestination. By 1857 the dissatisfaction over these concerns reached the point where it precipitated another “afscheiding”. This separation formed the “Ware Hollandsch Gereformeerde Kerk” (The True Dutch Reformed Church). In 1890 the church changed its name to the Christian Reformed Church. Although there was no ecclesiastical connection with the original secession church in the Netherlands, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk, the name was an exact translation. The CRC was in that sense clearly displaying its roots.

Over the years however this identification with the afscheiding faded away. This especially changed with the secession of 1886 and the founding of the Gereformeerde Kerk. The CRC identified more and more with that church. In the first half of the twentieth century as successive waves of Dutch immigrants came to North America they mostly joined the CRC. Most of these were from the Gereformeerde Kerk. The CRC was basically becoming the North American sister church of the GKN. As the twentieth century went on the GKN progressively succumbed to liberalism and modernism. The Free University of Amsterdam became infected with unscriptural philosophies. These became conduits for infecting the CRC with the same errors. In the second half of the this century, the CRC, although lagging significantly behind the radical unbelief and heresy in the GKN, has slowly drifted more and more in the same direction. This has sparked some limited separations from the CRC, such as the OCRC (The Orthodox Christian Reformed Church) and the URC (A federation of former CRC churches called the United Reformed Churches). The Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands is now represented in North America by the Free Reformed Churches of North America.

NOTE: For further study in American Presbyterian History see Presbyterian History Books.