LESSON 4: LIBERALISM IN THE NETHERLANDS
BIBLE READING: Romans 7
IMMORALITY AND RATIONALISM
During the 1500’s the church in Holland had to fight and struggle to survive. But by the 1600’s she was firmly established. It even became the accepted trend to belong to the Reformed church. To be able to be a civil servant in those days, one had to be a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. The consequence of this development was that many joined the church who actually were not sincere at all. They lived in sin, while many of the church members who were sincere, did not really know what it meant to be reformed in the practice of their daily life.
Many had come from the Roman Catholic Church and had not received much instruction in the reformed principles of doctrine. In fact, we can say that the Reformed Church in the 17th century was reformed in doctrine but not reformed in the daily conduct of their members. That is why many ministers started to preach the necessity of having living faith and the urgent need to live in the practice of daily life according to these reformed principles. They emphasized the need for personal regeneration and conversion. They also stressed the necessity of a personal walk with the Lord. These ministers were called the Dutch Puritans. They did much to spread the reformed doctrines in daily life among the church people.
During the 1700’s the Reformed Church developed slowly but steadily in the direction of liberalism. Many in the churches denied the truth of Scripture. They had become influenced by a movement that later would be called the Enlightenment; that is a movement that emphasized human reason. They taught that we can only believe from Scripture the parts that we can understand. The miracles performed by the Lord Jesus for example, are things we cannot understand with our sense and therefore, they said, we do not have to believe them. This enlightenment disrupted the church.
THE SPREAD OF ARMINIANISM
People rationalized that salvation must be dependant upon man and upon man’s works. Then it didn’t take long or the Canons of Dort were forgotten and hardly mentioned anymore. In the 18th century nearly all the protestant churches throughout the world were Arminian, in Scotland, America, France, England, the Netherlands. In those days the revival preacher John Wesly proclaimed: “I am an Arminian”. He was editor of the Arminian Magazine. Holland was overall Arminian and liberal.
In America George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and a few others still preached the doctrines of free grace; in Scotland Thomas Boston, the Erskines and some others; in Holland Alexander Comrie and a few more.
In the 1700’s Arminianism was preached and taught freely again. As we saw in chapter 3, the Arminians taught that election is based on God’s foreknowledge. God rewards those who believe. Man is fully responsible but he is also the cause of his own salvation. Man has a free will whereby he can also fall away from grace after he has come to faith.
Man is in focus and that appeals to man’s pride. That is why the Arminian heresies gained entrance again into the Reformed churches and also now are so plenteous. If we look around us today, we must say with grief and shame that the vast majority of churches are in fact teaching Arminian doctrines. This is even the case in churches which were originally of a Reformed persuasion. Many teach free will.
At the heart of all this lies our view of man: Is man totally depraved or not? That is the cardinal issue. The vast majority of churches today do not uphold the doctrine of the total depravity of man. With this doctrine stands or falls all true Biblical teaching and preaching.
Yet we must say that throughout the history of the Church the preaching of free grace has always been the true preaching. This doctrine of free grace, including the total depravity of man and God’s sovereign election, is not a novelty of Reformed churches. It has been the preaching of eminent men of God throughout the history of the Church.
Augustine preached these truths. Likewise the reformers. Luther and Calvin upheld the sovereignty of God and the free grace of God. This was the Gospel that men like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards preached.
Spurgeon preached these truths. He once wrote: “The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth. I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.”
This was also the truth which had originally been adopted and preached by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. These truths had been ecclesiastically adopted and declared in the Canons of Dordt. They had been initially upheld by the churches, but during the 18th century spiritual decay entered the churches in the Netherlands.
The overall trend was Arminianism. Liberalism poured into the church. The church in Holland was greatly weakened.
In the 1700’s many Dutch people again emigrated to the new world and settled down in the eastern states such as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Many joined and strengthened the existing Reformed Church of America. A famous Dutch minister of those days was Frelinckhuysen, who worked in the town of New Brunswick in New Jersey.
OPPRESSION AND GOVERNMENT CONTROL
At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon and his armies conquered Holland and oppressed the Reformed Church. There was no real opposition to Napoleon from the clergy since the church had become very weak.
In the beginning of the 1800’s in Holland, the church had come under the direct authority of the government. The government wanted to control the whole church. The king and some secretaries of state had complete authority in this church. They proclaimed that every member could believe what he wanted and every minister could teach what he wished. They could teach liberal Bible criticism, but also the reformed doctrines as they were declared at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. In this way, false teaching and true teaching were both tolerated. Officially, the church denied the truth of the three confessions that had been adopted by the synod of Dort.
During these days in several places throughout the Netherlands there were simple God fearing people. They understood the truth. They had come to know the power of the grace of God. They had been converted by God. They studied good “old writers” like Brakel. They came together during the evenings to discuss the dealings of the Lord with His people. They didn’t pay much attention to the false teachings they heard from the pulpits. They stuck with the old truth which they had known from their childhood and which they read about in the old religious books.
These common people would later become the backbone of the Dutch Secession movement. These simple people were even of great service to certain ministers by explaining to them in all simplicity the way of salvation. These people had experienced grace, while many minsters had not.
During the 19th century the Reformed Church in the Netherlands was going to experience two major splits. They were called the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886.
- What is total depravity?
- Describe the relationship between the old and the new man within the believer.
- Why do churches always tend to draw back from the total depravity of man?
- Should reformation be a continuing matter in church?
- Which dangers are facing the church in our day and age?
* This Bible Study was produced by the Youth & Education Committee of the Free Reformed Churches,1997, under the title, “Church History.” It is aimed at a Senior Young Peoples level.
Click on the tag “Bible Study: Free Reformed Church History” below for more lessons in this study