The Union of 1892 What Can We Learn from It Today?
It was one hundred years ago last June that a remarkable event took place in the Netherlands: the unification of Reformed Churches from the First Secession (1834) and the Second Secession (1886). On June 17, 1892, the Synods of these two federations gathered in one, united session to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
Most descriptions of this event show it to have been a real feast. At the combined synod meeting, Psalm 106 was sung,
O thank the LORD, bring Him your praise, extol His goodness all your days.
The Scripture reading was Psalm 126, expressing the joy of exiles who have come home. The unification was indeed experienced by all participants as a true homecoming. Those who belonged together had finally come together in unity.
It is not the purpose of this feature to fill you in on some of the historical details of this unification. In other magazines or publications, you can probably find a detailed analysis of the issues and events of that era. What I will try to do in this article is to discern what can be learned from that event for the situation in which we find ourselves today.
Opposition to Unification
There were in 1892 many people who did not agree with the historic unification. A good number of these people continued independently as De Christelijke Gerformeerde Kerk. These people did not feel that in 1892 the conditions and terms were right for fruitful unification.
What was the main objection against the unification? There was among them the feeling that the churches of the Second Secession had not fully broken with the apostate Dutch Reformed Church and had not truly recognized the right and duty of the Secession of 1834 “as a work of God.” There was a strong conviction that the churches of the Second Secession should not have organized themselves independently, but should have simply joined the existing “true” churches of the First Secession. To agree to unification would mean to deny the principle of the secession of 1834.
Even more, perhaps, there was among them a great fear of the influence of Abraham Kuyper in the churches of the Second Secession. Dr. H. Bavinck, who in the late 1880s was still professor at Kampen, wrote to a friend at that time,
Many among us are a little afraid of the less pleasant spirit and tone, which governs the Doleerenden, and not less afraid of the supremacy of Kuyper.
Bavinck added, It is sure that if the unification does take place, a great measure of the freedom which now exists among us, will be lost.
The opponents of unification obviously felt that they would be snowed under in a unified church dominated by Kuyper's theories as being already promoted and taught at the Free University of Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, their objections would prove themselves not to be unfounded in the developments after 1892.
Basis for Union
It took a good number of years (from 1887-1892) before the various obstacles to unification had been overcome and an acceptable formula was found. The people from the first and second secessions had been separated for a long time and had for many years followed a different course. It takes time to overcome fear and suspicion and to begin to understand and trust one another again.
It has been argued that especially Dr. Abraham Kuyper's (oftentimes forceful) views and methods slowed the process down significantly (see e.g. J. Kamphuis, Verkenningen II, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1964, p. 128 ff.). But finally the matter became quite clear: the only basis for union is the full, unconditional, mutual acceptance of the Word of God, the Reformed confessions, and the Church Order of Dordt.
It also became clear: if the two parties are to unite, they must together have the same understanding concerning the apostate Dutch Reformed Church from which they seceded in 1834 and 1886.
It was agreed in 1892 that the breaking of ecclesiastical fellowship, not only with the boards of the Dutch Reformed Church but also with the members in corporative and local sense, is demanded by God's Word and the Reformed confession, and is therefore necessary.
In other words, the union of 1892 meant for both parties a decisive position against the Dutch Reformed Church from which they had each seceded at different points in the past.
You simply cannot secede from a false church and still maintain some “fellowship” with it. They finally understood this in 1892 and dared to state this clearly. Saying “yes” to one another in a clear commitment to the Truth also meant saying “no” to all who evidently did not uphold the Truth. In 1892 the true and the false Church were easily recognized and distinguished.
Seeds of Division
There were those who in 1892 warned that many seeds of division were present which would later ripen to cause a rift in the newly-formed Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Some “Free Reformed” in 1891 already expressed grave concerns about Kuyper's theories regarding baptism and regeneration. Did subsequent developments from 1905-1944 not prove them right?
It cannot be denied that in the years following the Union of 1892, Kuyper's theories became more and more prominent, and were finally declared to be binding “church doctrine.” This led ultimately to the Liberation of 1944. The point is, however, that this development could not be foreseen in 1892! Unification is, at bottom, an act of faith and obedience. When the conditions are right and the basis is sound, one must proceed in the hope of faith that Christ will bless His Church and will continue to gather, defend, and preserve it. We believe that our Lord did do this, also after 1892.
In 1892, when the “last” synod of the churches of the First Secession met to finalize their discussion on the proposal for unity, it was mentioned by one delegate that although there are indeed still differences of opinion, the church is not an assembly of people who think alike in all things. This was an important remark. Whoever goes the path of unification must realize that indeed there will be points about which different opinions will continue to exist. There will be friction also after unification.
Therefore, it was stressed, we must not bind one another to certain opinions or traditions, but only to the accepted basis of Scripture and confession. On the path of unification, one must be prepared to show some flexibility and also allow time for a growing understanding of one another on differing viewpoints, as long as the faithfulness to the basis is not in question.
Differing viewpoints become seeds of division only when they cease to be seeds for discussion. We must never strive for a church which consists of like-minded people, but work in a church which pledges and demonstrates faithfulness to the Word of God and the adopted creeds.
The Situation Today
One might well say that the unification of 1892 was a remarkable event. Such unification has never been repeated among Reformed churches. On the contrary, there have since then been many secessions and divisions. And wherever there is concerted talk of unification, as between the (Synodical) Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) and the Dutch Reformed Church (NHK), it is mostly a result of sheer liberalism and modernism.
If we today might expect a unification of the kind which took place in 1892 between churches that wish to be true to the Reformed confession, it will have to come from faithful elements in the Christian Reformed Church, the “old” Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk (which did not go along in 1892), and the churches which came forth out of the Liberation of 1944. Among these churches there is basically a sincere commitment to the Truth and thus a basis for serious contacts.
We may thankfully note that there has lately been more intensified contact in the Netherlands between the Reformed Churches (Liberated) and the old ‘Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk’. But the negotiations have not run smoothly or been productive. The Deputies of both Churches have recently stated that “it will be a long road to come to unity as churches.” Apparently the miracle of 1892 will not repeat itself in 1992.
The Deputies did agree on one aspect: they do not have to debate their different views on the legitimacy of the Union of 1892. One can disagree about the past, as long as one accepts a common basis today. The main controversies today focus on what the confession states about the church and on the manner of preaching which is to be used. These points need to be discussed further.
In my understanding, the present generation of “Free Reformed” continue to show the same reluctance towards unification as their forbears from 1892. While the “Free Reformed” will not out-rightly accuse the “Liberated Reformed” of going against the Reformed confession, they do feel that their concerns, especially about the manner of preaching, are quite essential. As one Free Reformed minister put it, “There must be spiritual unity before there can be ecclesiastical unity.”
Let us do some work, then, with respect to this spiritual unity. Perhaps the best way today is to begin or revive meaningful contacts and discussions on a local level and then together in time bring the matter to the major assemblies. In these local discussions we should not bind one another to anything else except the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. We should not come with a prepared list of requirements, but truly seek to understand one another. Then it will become clear what really does bind us together in faith.
May the centennial of the Unification of 1892 encourage us in this direction. We have no time to waste.