This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of 1944. If you have no idea what that is, you’re in good company. I remember hearing about it for the first time in my Christian school and my thoughts went right away to the Canadian soldiers liberating the Netherlands during the Second World War. It’s at the same time, but this is a totally different event, something from church history.
The story begins in the early 1800s. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands was in a bad way. Scripture-denying theological liberalism was in the ascendancy. God brought about a Reformation known as the Secession of 1834. Later, in 1886, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper and others, another Reformation happened. This was called the Doleantie, literally, “the Grieving.” In 1892, the Secession and Doleantie churches were united together in one federation. This happened through the herculean efforts of influential figures like Herman Bavinck (from the Secession churches) and Abraham Kuyper (from the Doleantie churches).
By 1921 both Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper were gone. The Union of 1892 was something that lay almost 30 years in the past. In those thirty years, there had been tensions. It took time for Secession and Doleantie churches to learn to live with one another. That took place on a local level. Many Dutch towns and villages had both a Secession church and a Doleantie church. Now they were both in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. The old Secession church was known as the ‘A’ church, and the Doleantie church would be known as the ‘B’ church. In some places eventually they merged into one congregation, but in other places they continued their separate existence.
Yet deeper problems existed. The question of Abraham Kuyper’s theology continued. He had some peculiar beliefs, especially about baptism. He believed in presumptive regeneration. Kuyper argued that we baptize on the presumption that the child being baptized is born again or regenerate. If it turns out later that the child is not regenerate, then it wasn’t a real baptism. There were other doctrinal concerns as well, but it’s especially the doctrine of baptism and the covenant that becomes a matter of controversy later on.
In 1905, a Synod was held in Utrecht. This synod was asked to deal with the theology of Kuyper. It did this by means of what has come to be known as the Conclusions of Utrecht. It’s also sometimes called “the Pacification Formula” because it was meant to pacify the churches. It was meant to lay all the concerns to rest about what could and could not be taught in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. On the point of baptism, they came up with a compromise statement. It mildly rejected some of Kuyper’s formulations, while allowing for others. So Utrecht said that children “must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine.” However, Utrecht also said that it is “less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God.”
Three Streams in the RCN
So Kuyper and his followers were gently chastened by this synod. Nevertheless, this chastening had little lasting effect. Kuyper’s followers became increasingly insistent about his formulations as time went on. They formed one stream in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands as we get into the 1920s and 1930s.
There was another stream, however. This stream originated with an organization known as the Dutch Christian Student Union. This was a broad organization that involved people from all kinds of different backgrounds. It started off with the Apostles’ Creed as its doctrinal basis, but this was soon abandoned. A statement of purpose was developed which mentioned the Trinity and this also was deemed too restrictive. Soon this organization settled on this purpose: “to introduce and build up the Christian life and worldview, which is grounded in the Bible and which, linking up with the historical development of Christianity, takes account of the needs and demands of the present time.” Seminary students from both the Free University and the seminary in Kampen were involved with this organization; some were even leaders. Even ministers and seminary professors were involved. This was an organization that included the same kind of liberal thinking that had earlier led to the Secession and the Doleantie. It seemed that some people had forgotten their church history or just didn’t care. In 1920 in Leeuwarden, at the synod of the Reformed Churches, a warning was issued against membership in the Dutch Christian Student Union. However, it was just a warning. It didn’t really have any teeth. It didn’t stop further developments.
One of the developments out of this stream was the Geelkerken case. In a catechism sermon Rev. J. G. Geelkerken stated that it’s possible that there was no literal snake speaking in the Garden of Eden. The case ended up at the Synod of Assen in 1926. The Synod decided against Geelkerken; his views could not be tolerated in the Reformed Churches. However, they went further: they suspended and deposed him. His views were wrong and unbiblical. But this synod did something that contravened the agreed-upon church order. Only a local church can suspend and depose ministers and other office bearers. Still, Synod Assen went ahead and usurped the rights of the local church. This set a bad precedent for years to come.
As we come into the 1930s, a third stream was developing in the Reformed churches. These were mostly younger ministers who rejected the Dutch Christian Student Union, but also found that some of Kuyper’s views didn’t stand up to biblical and confessional scrutiny. Among these ministers was Klaas Schilder. Schilder began critiquing some of Kuyper’s views and this caused controversy. Kuyper’s devotees accused this Reformational stream of deviating from the Reformed faith.
That brings us to a series of key Synods at which weighty decisions were made.
The first one is Synod Amsterdam 1936. This synod received a communication from a classis about the doctrinal disputes regarding Kuyper’s views. It wasn’t clear what the classis was asking or proposing. The synod decided to appoint a study committee made up of people from both sides. However, after the synod was over and the committee got to work, it quickly became evident that there were deep problems. One of the people in the committee (Prof. Valentine Hepp) started throwing around accusations with no proof. This behaviour drove out three of the eight other committee members, the three who were on the side of those concerned about Kuyper’s theology. The result, of course, would be an imbalanced report to the next synod. However, those concerned members also wrote their own report.
The next synod was Sneek 1939. It is usually referred to as Sneek/Utrecht and this synod actually ended up lasting until 1942. This was the synod that would deal with the doctrinal differences. The political situation comes into play here. It was tense. When the synod opened, it was the eve of the Second World War. In 1940, the synod was still on and the Germans invaded the Netherlands. It was a time of national crisis. Proposals were made to the synod to postpone dealing with the doctrinal disputes until there was more stability in national life in the Netherlands. Despite such pleas, the synod plowed forward. The majority report from the study committee was received – it made accusations that some ministers and professors, including Klaas Schilder, were deviating from Scripture and the Confessions. The synod continued through 1940 and 1941, periodically meeting. At the end of 1941, a decision was made to move the synod to Utrecht and reconvene there in May of 1942. The following month a decision was made regarding the doctrinal differences. The Kuyperian stream had scored a victory. The views of Schilder and others were declared out of bounds.
The next synod was the following year. Notice how synods here follow one upon the other. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands had become top heavy with synodical hierarchy. Synod Utrecht 1943 received proposals and submissions requesting a reconsideration of the decision of the previous year. However, these were all rejected. This synod also maintained the position of the previous one: Schilder and others would have to fall in line or face the consequences. Synod Utrecht 1943 continued into 1944. When it became evident that Schilder would not surrender and fall in line, the Synod first suspended him and then later deposed him. They did the same with many other office bearers. According to the Reformed Church Order, this was an illegal action. Only local consistories could suspend and depose office bearers. A synod again usurped this authority. It was another classic example of ecclesiastical hierarchy.
On August 11, 1944 a meeting was held at the Lutheran Church in The Hague. It was supposed to be a meeting for all those concerned about the developments with regard to Schilder and others. Hundreds of people showed up, despite the ongoing war (the Allies had only liberated the southern part of the Netherlands) and the challenges with regard to transportation. At the meeting, after some speeches, Schilder read an “Act of Liberation or Return.” This document was modelled partly on the Act of Secession from 1834. With this Act in hand, people returned to their local churches and the Liberation (Vrijmaking) was underway. Many people freed themselves from the synodical hierarchy. Those who were liberated claimed to be the true continuation of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. They called themselves Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) or Reformed Churches maintaining article 31. Article 31 refers to an article of our Church Order which states that decisions made by synods and classes shall be considered settled and binding unless they are proven to be in conflict with Scripture or the Church Order. The Liberated believed that the doctrinal decisions of 1942 were in conflict with Scripture and the suspensions and depositions in 1944 were in conflict with the Church Order.
The Liberation is a fairly recent part of our church history. Shortly after the Liberation, post-War emigration brought many Liberated church members to both Canada and Australia. They were the ones who started the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia. It’s a significant part of our heritage.
It’s sometimes said that the “past is the parent of the present.” For example, if you want to know why our churches are so particular about our Church Order and its principles, you have to understand the Liberation of 1944. If you want to know why the first Dutch immigrants to Canada and Australia didn’t join with other Reformed believers, it’s related to the Liberation. If you want to know why there’s often antipathy towards Abraham Kuyper in the CanRC and FRCA, again it’s 1944. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this event has profoundly shaped the character and culture of our churches.
My Opa Vanderland was a local leader in the Liberation in his church in Marum. For him, as for many others, this event was deeply personal and any discussion of it would be emotionally charged. He was scarred by the Liberation, as well as by the Nazi occupation happening at exactly the same time. Then he immigrated to Canada. That too was a life-changing experience with hardships we can hardly comprehend. It’s easy to take a triumphalistic view of the Liberation. It’s easy to view it simplistically as an act of God to liberate his people from ecclesiastical wickedness. Yet, as time goes on, we need to also see the extensive personal pain and trouble involved. We can start to see how an intense ecclesiastical conflict like this, however necessary, can shape individuals and churches, and not always in good ways. We always have to remember our constant need for God’s grace, for the gospel, for our Saviour Jesus. After all, a “Liberated” church is still far from a perfect church, both in the past and the present.
 Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.
 Van Oene, Patrimony Profile, 230.
 Van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle, 33.