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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Reformed Churches in North America

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Reformed Churches are lineal descendants of the church of John *Calvin, and therefore collateral relations of the Presbyterian bodies in Europe and America. But whereas Presbyterianism is mainly an Anglo-Saxon development through the Scot John *Knox, the Reformed groups derive from Calvin directly. Their immediate ancestors are the Calvinists in France, Switzerland, and the Low Countries (see CALVINISM). Although they are concentrated in the U.S., Reformed congregations have been established also in Latin America, principally in Mexico.

History. Reformed Protestantism is commonly traced to the Synod of Dort (1619) in Holland, which adopted five articles of strict Calvinism against the Arminians, who believed in free cooperation with divine grace (see ARMINIANISM). According to Dort, God from eternity had chosen some persons for heaven and predestined others for damnation, irrespective of their faith or good works and dependent solely on His inscrutable will. The Arminians were condemned as heretics, and the Canons of Dort became an essential part of the Reformed doctrinal system.

The Reformed Church in America was a direct result of the business migration of Calvinists from Holland, sponsored by the Dutch East India Company. At first they were only scattered groups along the Hudson River, but in 1628 they organized at New Amsterdam what has become the oldest church in America with an uninterrupted ministry. In 1792 they broke away from the parent body in Holland and held their first general synod 2 years later. Insistence on keeping the Dutch language in preaching and the liturgy retarded the church’s growth and alienated some of its younger members, but no grave doctrinal crisis arose until the 19th century.

To understand this crisis it is necessary briefly to retrace the European origins of the Christian Reformed Church, which, together with the Reformed Church in America, accounts for 90 per cent of the Reformed membership in the U.S. After the troubles of the Napoleonic era in the Netherlands, William I reorganized the Dutch (Calvinist) Church, but in the process took over so much control that a conservative reaction set in. In 1834 a secession of strict Calvinist ministers started a church of their own. Social and economic conditions in the Netherlands forced the secessionists to migrate to the U.S. One group went to Holland, Mich., in 1846, where they were invited to enter into a loose merger with the Reformed Church in America.

Almost from the day the union was effected, some leaders in the conservative party were dissatisfied. Their basic fear was the same that had motivated those who bad seceded in the Netherlands 20 years before. Believing themselves to be the true heirs of the Reformed position, they argued that continued association with the Reformed Church in America would entangle them in embarrassing alliances with churches of other beliefs. They felt that instruction in the seminary tended to weaken the Reformed tradition and that the laity needed to be better instructed in their creedal inheritance. But the most crucial factor was the lodge question, i.e., whether members of the Reformed Church may belong to such lodges as the Freemasons and continue in good standing in the church. The Reformed Church in America tolerated lodge membership and, in the eyes of the conservatives, belittled its significance. When the final break came in 1857, grievance over the existence of *Freemasonry in the Reformed Church in America was decisive. In 1857 four congregations with about 750 people left the Reformed Church in America to form what eventually became the Christian Reformed Church in America. A steady tide of immigrants from the Netherlands gradually swelled the membership; with more than 250,000 members in 1964, this church outnumbered the parent body, which had a membership of about 231,000.

Since 1857, each of the two main branches has developed a history of its own. The Reformed Church in America remained concentrated in the East, mainly New York and New Jersey, and in the Middle Western states of Michigan and Illinois. The General Synod meets annually, with headquarters in New York City. An elaborate missions program sponsors operations in the U.S. and in foreign countries, notably India, Ceylon, Indonesia, and the Near East. The Reformed Church in America has cooperated actively with the *World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council. Its representatives have given exceptional leadership in the *National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., up to the vice presidency in the organization.

With its strong emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy, the Christian Reformed Church developed along different lines. More concerned with integrating religion and education, and more compact in geographical distribution, the church promoted a system of Christian day schools from elementary through secondary and college grades. The Society for Christian Instruction on a Reformed Basis was organized in 1892 to federate the dozen schools in existence at that time. At its first meeting, the Society recommended that all Christian schools should be owned and operated by the parent society. This departure from parochialism is generally credited with having produced the nation’s most extensive program (80 per cent) of religion-centered education in the Reformed tradition.

Also consistent with its stress on doctrinal integrity, the Christian Reformed Church has engaged in such projects as neighborhood evangelism, home mission work among the Jews, catechism instruction to children and adult converts, and church publications with an appeal to denominational loyalty. The preamble to the constitution of a national youth organization illustrates this emphasis on distinctively religious values: “recognizing the desirability and necessity of uniting the youth of Calvinistic churches for service in the Kingdom of God, and the need of guidance and direction in this work in order that the youth of the church, as well-prepared servants of the Lord, may recognize Jesus Christ as King and serve Him always and everywhere, the Young Calvinist Federation of North America is established.”

Unlike the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed body is centered in smaller cities, mostly in the Middle West but also along the West Coast and in Canada. The largest single contingent is in Michigan, around Grand Rapids, Holland, and Kalamazoo.

Doctrine and Worship. All the Reformed bodies in America subscribe to the *Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561 and 1619), and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). See CONFESSIONS OF FAITH, PROTESTANT. The guiding motif of these doctrinal standards is the affirmation of God’s sovereignty. They repeatedly speak of the glory of God that is man’s universal purpose for existence. Consistent with this accent, the distance between God and man is brought out in the strongest terms.

The critical standard of doctrine is Dort, which originally met to reject the Arminian teaching in grace; ever since the Canons of Dort have been the watershed that divides orthodox from liberal Reformed believers. Its five canons are really five chapters of numerous articles dealing, in sequence, with divine *predestination, Redemption, the fall and conversion of man, and perseverance of the saints. Characteristic passages exemplify the general tone:

As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are obnoxious to eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish, and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin.
What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree.
It was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father.

The canons are differently interpreted by the two Calvinist segments. The Reformed Church in America omits the negative part condemning as heretics those who affirm the opposite. Yet both churches have the formula of subscription that every minister, theological professor, elder, and deacon in the church is required to sign and promise to observe. Two sentences in the formula summarize its substance: “We promise diligently to teach and faithfully defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching or writing. We declare moreover that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine…but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.”

As a rule, preachers and writers in the Christian Reformed Church take a firm Calvinistic stand on absolute predestination, with little or no compromise on man’s ability to reject divine grace. Irresistible grace is generally professed without mitigation. The Reformed Church in America allows more latitude on the subject, and prominent churchmen do not hesitate to say that strict Calvinism is outmoded.

Both branches hold to a virtual or spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, with variations that do not follow the corresponding teaching on predestination, Unlike the Lutheran position, which believes that Christ is present somehow “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, Reformed thinking avoids any kind of “localization” of the Eucharistic presence. The words of the Heidelberg Catechism ask “Do the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ?” And believers are told, “No; but as the water in Baptism is not changed into the blood of Christ nor becomes the washing away of sins itself, so also in the Lord’s Supper the sacred bread does not become the body of Christ itself, though agreeably to the nature and usage of sacraments it is called the body of Christ.”

Reformed theology denies that Baptism directly remits sin, either original or personal. At least this is the explicit teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, for “only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.” Baptism merely signifies that a person’s sins have been remitted. It does not actually remove them.

The intransigence of the Christian Reformed Church on absolute predestination is exemplified in the historic controversy of the mid-1920s, when a group of prominent ministers were censured by the Synod for protesting against the church’s stand on particular election. They favored the belief that grace is given to all mankind, with men’s free option to reject or cooperate with God’s gift. After seceding from the denomination, they founded the Protestant Reformed Church, organized in 1926 and centered in Grand Rapids (approximately 3,000 members, 1961).

Consistent with their respective doctrinal differences, the churches differ also in their orders of worship. The Christian Reformed tends to be more reserved in ritual expression and less likely to make changes along the lines of the modern liturgical renewal in American Protestantism (see LITURGICAL MOVEMENT, PROTESTANT). Conversely the Reformed Church in America for more than a century has encouraged active participation in ceremonial functions, featured by its early introduction of English into church services and its experimenting with liturgical forms drawn from other denominations. Yet neither group is strongly oriented ritually. Until almost early 20th century, there were no choirs in any Reformed Churches, and though organs were later used, they are relative innovations in some segments of the Reformed tradition.

Organizational Structure. Church government among Reformed bodies differs widely. The Reformed Church in Hungary, for example, has bishops, and elsewhere there are superintendents. In the U.S., the organization follows the pattern set by John Knox. It is basically Presbyterian, which means that the direction and control of the church is by a group of equals rather than by one person. At each level of church life the directing authority is not one person but a representative body.

As worked out in practice, the governing bodies are organized in a series of “courts” that have various names. Thus in the Reformed Church in America, these courts are established for a local congregation, for a number of congregations in a locality, and finally on the national level for the whole denomination. The official terms for the governing bodies are provinces, corresponding to the states; classes, which center around municipal units as equivalent to presbyteries; and congregations, served by individual pastors.

In the same Calvinist tradition, the laity is given equal authority with the clergy for directing the churches. Although a threefold ministry is recognized (ministers, elders, deacons), in practice the laity exercises dominant power by their equal representation on the governing boards. According to the Belgic Confession of Faith, the ministers or pastors are to preach the word of God, while elders and deacons (who are technically laymen) “together with the pastors form the council of the Church, that by these means the true religion may be preserved.” Moreover each congregation, through its lay delegates, has the right to invite clergymen to become ministers and to dismiss those who are not satisfactory.

A characteristic feature of Reformed Protestantism is its attitude toward worldly amusements and luxuries. If the prevalent attitude in America is quite different from Calvin’s Geneva, it is still more demanding than in most other churches stemming from the Reformation. Here, too, the Christian Reformed Church is less compromising. A series of synodical declarations speak out against dancing, card playing, and theater attendance, although enforcement of such regulations has been extremely difficult.

Correspondingly, the Christian Reformed Church has been severe in condemning divorce with the right to remarry, except on the recognized Biblical grounds of infidelity. Mixed marriages with persons of another faith have been discouraged officially. Since the Reformed Church in America is more lenient in making concessions, the result is that each of the two main bodies of Reformed thought in the U.S. often serve as a haven for people from the other denomination, either by providing more freedom or by ensuring greater Calvinistic orthodoxy.

Bibliography: W. D. Brown, My Confession of Faith (New York 1941). H. G. Hageman, Lily Among Thorns (Grand Rapids 1953). Christian Reformed Church Centennial Committee, One Hundred Years in the New World: The Story of the Christian Reformed Church, ed. H. J. Kuiper (Grand Rapids 1957). J. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church: A Study in Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids 1949). B. Kruithof, The Meaning of My Confession of Faith (Grand Rapids 1951). L. Nixon, The Doctrinal Standards of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids n.d.); Reformed Standards of Unity (Grand Rapids 1957). M. Schooland, Children of the Reformation: The Story of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids 1958). Illustration credits: Christian Reformed Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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