Retrospective and prospective (1): Why still liberated-Reformed?

This is a translation of chapter 1 of Prof. Dr. J. Douma’s essay “Bezinning en uitzicht” in “Het vuur blijft branden” (1979). See here for an overview and discussion.

1. Why still liberated-Reformed?

Separatist or catholic?

We liberated ourselves in 1944 to remain Reformed, and our forefathers at the time of the great Reformation became Reformed to remain true Christians. They did not bring something new but wished to hold on to the old Word of God. We want the same. We want to be true and normal Christians.

Therefore we are Reformed. Therefore we also are, and wish to remain, liberated-Reformed.

We thought it good to start with these remarks. After all, the liberated-Reformed are nationally known as a very isolated crowd. They closed themselves off from politics, have their own schools, their own political party, their own social work organization, even their own travel agency. You can’t get it more isolated. The liberated-Reformed form their own little world with firmly closed boundaries, without interacting with what the press calls “church”. If we make it into the newspapers, it is to evoke irritation or ridicule. We are annoying because we almost always say “no” when a “yes” is needed for collaboration. We are bizarre because we still insist that the true and false church can clearly be distinguished.

So we don’t look so good. We are more a curiosity than a reality that the Netherlands must take into account. We bark a bit, while the caravan of “real” church life takes no notice of it and continues onward.

Now it has happened before that a situation was misjudged. The first Christians were considered by the pagans to be haters of humanity. Calvin supposedly disturbed the peace and wanted to overturn the existing order. The Secessionists were accused of being fanatics. Abraham Kuyper knew the push-back you get when you start your own schools, universities, and political parties. Yet all these people were travelling the road of the one, holy, universal Christian church. They appeared to be separatists, while they might be called catholic. They sought the well-being of the church and had a good message for the world.

Therefore we need not lose our calm when people accuse us of absolutism, or don’t take us seriously. The label of “real” church life has been misused before. The headings in the newspapers often distract from the main issue. The World Council of Churches is mentioned more often in the news than the very best church council. Yet if such a council does its work well in the congregation entrusted to them, it is more fruitful than many international conferences, which have an appearance of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5). The kingdom of God uses a different standard than the world. Think of the two pennies of the poor widow (Mark 12:41ff) and of those who were faithful over a little but will be appointed over much (Mat. 5:21ff).

With all the special distinctives attributed to us, we wish to be Christians who do not walk on a side track, but wish to travel the main road. Reformed is our nickname, Christian is our name. In an effort to be serious about that name of Christian, the Reformers turned their back to a church that had removed God’s Word from its central position. They acknowledged that old Word anew in their confessions. They sought ecclesiastical fellowship with all who, like them, wanted to hold on to sola scriptura—the Sacred Scriptures alone. To really be the church again.

It was no different when Hendrik de Cock drafted the Act of Secession or Return. He and his followers viewed the Secession from the Dutch Reformed Church (NHK) as a return to the doctrine, discipline, and liturgy as they had regained a place of authority in the great Reformation. They separated, but not to specialize. They separated from the false church to find back one, universal church. The expressly declared in their Act of Secession that they sought fellowship with all true Reformed members and wanted to unite with any congregation that was grounded in God’s Word, “to whatever place the Lord has joined it.” That was also the aim in the Liberation, when many signed the Act of Liberation or Return. Just note the name! The Liberation intended to be a return—back to sola scriptura, as was testified in the Reformed confessions. Again the willingness was expressed “as quickly as possible exercise fellowship with all who, in the unity of the doctrine that is according to God’s Word, are willing to live with us according to an adopted or re-adopted church order, which is based on that Word.” That is, no separate club, but incorporated in the church as it has beeb gathered, protected, and preserved from the beginning of the world to the end.

Note the Apostles’ Creed

If you ask me why, after thirty-five years after the Liberation, I am still liberated-Reformed, I don’t need to hand you the Act of Liberation or Return. I would even ask you not to pay any attention to my liberated baggage, but to join me in reading the Apostles’ Creed. It can’t get more universal, I would say. In this short creed, which I hear recited every Sunday afternoon as the confession of the church of all ages, I have everything I need to make clear why I am still liberated-Reformed.

I believe in God the Fatehr as the Creator of heaven and of the earth. That heaven and earth didn’t exist, at first, and were not necessary because God absolutely doesn’t need man in order to be God. For him there is more than the earthly reality. He is exalted high above us and all creatures. But if I keep my ear to the ground in the bigger church federations around me, I find innumerable theologians and preachers that bring a different message. They believe that there is one reality, namely this earthly reality. It is all about man and his humanity. First we must say “we” and then “God”, where the latter is so dependent on the former that they can no longer speak reverently of God’s sovereignty and groundless grace.

I believe in an almighty Creature, who at the same time is my Father. Therefore I believe that whatever happens, God watches over his children. In a car accident, in Dachau, and in an atomic war. Nothing happens by chance; everything comes from his fatherly hand. The devils can harm me, but in all things God has the first and the last word. If I every need to experience what Job experienced, I hope I can say after him in faith: The LORD has given, the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised (Job 1:21). But today it seems as if I should be ashamed to echo such a sentiment. God isn’t involved in suffering. The exact origin of suffering is a different question; but God is not involved. He weeps, as we do, at the ruins of this world. He shows his helplessness as the suffering God. His omnipotence he shows precisely in his inability; his power is a helpless power.

If you get it, you get it; I don’t. But I do understand that this has nothing to do with the confession of the church. It has to do with the God-is-dead theology, which is in vogue because the old view of God in heaven, his omnipotence, his fatherly hand in all things is supposedly no longer sufficient.

I believe in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, who was born from the virgin Mary. For Dorothee Sölle it was a relief to hear that she doesn’t need to believe in the physical virginity of Mary. An intellectual obstacle to believe was removed for her. She tells that this made it much easier to take Christianity more seriously. But I believe that the very basis of Christianity is at stake, if Jesus of Nazareth becomes a man among men and does not, through his conception by the Holy Spirit, remain God of God.

I believe that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that the same Pilate was confronted with an empty tomb, from which Christ was not stolen but risen. First really dead, then really alive. Thomas might be convinced by the facts, and for us they have been recorded so that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and believing have life in his name (John 20:31). Because he was crucified and died for the atonement of our sins. It was not a revolutionary or social reformer who hung on the cross as a victim of reactionary forces, but Jesus Christ, who willingly took on himself the suffering and fulfilled the Scriptures by his death on the cross: atonement by satisfaction. But this central Christian doctrine is boldly opposed within various so-called churches.

I believe that Christ ascended into heaven and from there will return to judge the living and the dead. But that means that I believe something that many consider outdated. They think it childish to believe in Jesus taking a space journey there and back. They are even more irked by the judgment on the last day, where the sheep are separated from the goats, and the unbelievers must undergo eternal punishment. We, too, struggle with this, and we understand what Kuyper once wrote: he much rather dealt with someone who believe that all people are saved than “with a man without heart, who can speak coldly and with a straight face about the ruin and eternal damnation of millions upon millions.” But he added: “The only thing that remains is to ask what the Word teaches, and then to submit to that Word.” With Kuyper we say that both our own heart and the heart of all our opponents must surrender unconditionally to what God has revealed in his Word in this matter. That is the decisive point: whether I can be silent in order to let the Word speak.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the third Person in the Trinity, and not a mere divine power, or the personification of all that proceeds from God. Through him we receive the gospel of forgiveness of sins as the most important gift of salvation that we can receive in this life. But how many rather seek their salvation in the overhaul of all earthly structures, in anti-colonialism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and so on, without attention for conversion, regeneration, and the sanctification of our personal lives?

I believe in one holy, universal, Christian church, the communion of saints, where I share in Christ and all his benefits. And is precisely why my church choice is so highly significant. I must not go to a marketplace where everyone displays his goods; but I must come into the house of the Lord without the tables of the money changers. I don’t want a church that yields to false teachers, but a church where the truth of the gospel remains (Gal. 2:5). For then I travel the road of the holy, general, Christian church, and don’t wander off the straight path.

I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. The graves will open and the believers will receive eternal life, as our lowly bodies are made like the glorified body of Christ (Phil. 3:21). But this faith, too, I must hold up over against many who speak plenty about what God wants with this world, but shrug their shoulders over an afterlife for believers. In their eyes, the world has a future, but whoever dies remains dead.

We need the church

Thirty-five years have passed since the Liberation. The issue that separated us from the community we left, pales in comparison with what separates us today. Back them it might have seemed that we were still rather close to each other. A professorial debate about regeneration that should or shouldn’t be presupposed, about the boundaries of the covenant, and about the authority of ecclesiastical assemblies kept us apart; but wasn’t there much unanimity about what was truly important?

We don’t believe that the issue at that time was merely a professorial disagreement. What happened then was bad enough. But the cracks of the past have become large holes in the present. We don’t need to publish pamphlets about baptism and regeneration, but we can take the Apostles’ Creed and say: this is where we go separate ways. What we want to confess as the true faith of the church of all times, you no longer hold fast, or you even oppose it, while thousands give up the true faith by which we must be saved.

That is why I, together with many others, don’t find it difficult to answer the question why we are still liberated-Reformed. We consider it a blessing to be part of a community that may be the church of Christ. She may be a mother for us, who brings forth, nurtures, and comforts her children through the preaching of the gospel. She may be a buttress and pillar of the truth, so that we know which doctrine gives us real support in this life. She may be like a father who has the authority to call us to account when we wander from the straight path. She encourage us to serve in the office that is entrusted to us, in the power of God’s Spirit. Often the person must yield to the office entrusted to him.

Jeremiah sometimes found it difficult to go and proclaim the Word of God. But he went, for the fire inside of him could not be quenched (Jer. 20:9).

Paul also knew that he was a wretched man. But he also knew about his office. Therefore he would proclaim the gospel and not be ashamed. “Woe to me if I don’t proclaim it!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

The elder may go on a difficult home visit with lead in his shoes. But with or without courage, he has to go. The office calls and his person must be silent.

A synod that still dares to support deposing ministers has become a strange duck among the churches. Many delegates spend sleepless nights. But it is worse when gentle healers make putrid wounds and no longer dare to apply the scalpel. It may seem friendly and Christian and loving, but it turns the church in the marketplace we mentioned before.

Since nobody, whatever his situation may be, is allowed to remain on his own, everyone is obliged to join the true church, says Art. 28 of the Belgic Confession. It says this because it is a matter of life and death for us. We cannot stand on our own legs; we need the church. If you try to go it alone, you will wander. Today you’ll follow Reverend X and tomorrow Professor Y. There are many who began this wandering as godly people and ended up as liberals. We need the church that comforts and admonishes us with the gospel. If you don’t want to join the church, or no longer take your membership in the church seriously, you may imagine that you are free, but you aren’t free at all.

We are not ashamed to be a member of the church that holds us to what we have promised. She will subject us to admonition and discipline if it happens that we err in doctrine or life. Precisely because the consistories and synods still dare to administer this discipline, we know that with this church we are on the way of the apostles and the prophets.

This binding we consider to be our freedom. Strange ideas may haunt us, and we may be tempted to try out fashionable theologies; but between these thoughts and their realization stands the church. Without her boundaries, only the gospel, echoed in the confession of the church, may have authority. And for that we are very thankful.

On Reformation Day 1966, about twenty-five brothers from our own circle tried to call us away from the liberated “narrowminded nonsense” to the “level of the worldwide church”. In their Open Letter they called for the end of “feuds” and to strive for reunion with the synodical-Reformed churches. They did not see a rift between these churches and ours. On the contrary, they asked for “mutual support and strengthening through sincere criticism and encouraging agreement in pure solidarity.”

Also in 1979, our answer cannot be different than it was in 1944 and in 1966: we wish to continue at the level of the worldwide church. That is why we cannot pledge solidarity with a community that no longer guards the gospel. For the worldwide church is not that of the ecumenical movement, of Geneva and Rome, but it is the church that endeavours to maintain the Word, respects the good ministers of the gospel, and does not tolerate false teachers.

Because of this bond to the church of all ages, we are still liberated-Reformed today.

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