Reconciliation

My best high school friend decided he’d go to college 500 miles west in a place he’d never been before – northwest Iowa. We’d played ball together in every high school sport imaginable, double-dated, were good buddies.

His decision had nothing to do with mine, but I too decided to head west 500 miles to the same corner of Iowa. I enrolled at Dordt College. My best friend enrolled just down the road at Northwestern College. Not for a moment did either of us consider attending the same school. Not that we hated each the other’s college; I didn’t know a thing about Northwestern except that it wasn’t ours.

Ours meant a great deal in that long-ago era. Denominationalism was huge, bigger than most Canadian CRCs can understand, in part because some CRC folks, like me, have been CRC for five generations, if I tally the immigrant Schaaps who departed Terschelling in 1868 because no church on the island was as orthodox as they were.

The 2014 CRC Synod took serious steps to bring together a couple of siblings who, officially at least, haven’t talked much in the last 150 years, since 1857 at least, when the CRC walked away.

Why did we split? Whatever differences once existed are barely worth noting. Both siblings are ailing these days, as all denominations are in the era of megachurch. American evangelicalism is a dynamo, despite its claims that there’s a war on faith in this country. South of the border, largely conservative evangelicals create the agendas of CRC churches far more than they did when I was a boy. Members of both denominations invest in politics more passionately than they do in theology; if they invest in theology at all, that investment takes a political bent.

Even where I live, where lots of folks belong to the CRC or the RCA, the old lines are not as distinctly drawn. Neither of us have the firepower we once had, so we may just as well share armories and sing together. Our worship styles were cut from the same fabric and are even more similar today. We all have the same praise teams.

It makes good sense to partner these days. It really does.

Because so much of the history of the dueling denominations is south of the border, some CC readers might well find all of this befuddling. What really is the difference historically?

Packing Kuyper

Let’s begin here. I was born and reared in a town that, even in the early 60s, was almost exclusively Dutch-American. In 1947, a whole century after that little burg, Oostburg, was established, proponents of Christian education built a Christian school.

In the town where I’ve lived for most of the last 40 years, Sioux Center, Iowa, Dutch Calvinist immigrants built a community a half century later. Here, the Christian school is 109 years old, a half century older than Oostburg’s, even though Oostburg itself is a half-century older.

The story is in the math. Dutch immigrants to northwest Iowa carried something of Abraham Kuyper with them on the trip over; my Wisconsin ancestors did not. Kuyper wasn’t even around when they left Amsterdam or Antwerp. Christian education, a formidable institution, had to be imported.

Christian schools are a legacy of Kuyperian ideas, an attribute of the pillarization that for so long characterized Dutch society. When immigrants once more left Holland after the Second World War, many packed Kuyper among their most precious possessions. In essence, he came with them.

Imagine, if you can, life without Abraham Kuyper’s influence. Pre-Kuyper, the CRC tended to be cutting edge when it came to piety, but a little fearful of the world around them. We’ve changed.

There’s more to remember. When that boatload of Dutch immigrants came to America in 1848 – to Iowa and west Michigan and Wisconsin – there was already a Dutch Reformed Church in this country, a denomination out east as old as any fellowship in North America.

When, in 1857, the break occurred, historians often maintain that a major reason was somewhat “interpersonal,” the perception the separatists picked up from those out east that what had happened to them in 1834, the Afscheiding in Holland, their split from the state church, was of little consequence. Those old American families with Dutch names didn’t get it and really didn’t care. After all, the Easterners, despite still speaking the Dutch language, had been residents of America for almost 200 years. What did they care?

When the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte chose to affiliate with them, he was being more political than orthodox, according to the dissenters. If his Michigan colony was to prosper, he reasoned, they needed their long-lost American relatives. The dissenters, including my ancestors, said no. What resulted was the CRC, the “affies,” as some folks called us (think of it as a slur).

I’m generalizing here. The history is more complicated and nuanced; but let’s keep it up with a few more dangerous generalizations.

Denominationalism

Most Christian believers are licensed to carry heresy detectors, even though they use them to uncover different enemies and ideas. For many years, most of our fights about heresy (and we define ourselves, for better and worse, by our fights) tended to be family feuds.

Because of its long history, the RCA’s fights were and still are more, well, American. Lynn Japinga’s fascinating history of the RCA (Loyalty and Loss: The Reformed Church in America, 1945-1994) make its battles seem less provincial and more “American” than those of the CRC – inerrancy on one hand, for example, and modernism on the other. Simply stated, the RCA has much greater diversity and did already when we left. Most of those who study the history of Christianity in this country call the RCA a “mainline” denomination.

No one really categorizes the CRC in that way.

But denominationalism itself is changing throughout the spectrum of Christian fellowships. No college is ours, these days. Dordt’s percentage of CRC kids dropped beneath 50 percent some years ago already. The absolute necessity of an education in a theological tradition, the strong arm I once felt, is barely a memory. If half of the graduating grade 12 students from CRC churches in North America would go to Calvin, Dordt, Trinity, Redeemer, Kings or Kuyper this fall, every one of those schools would be thrilled. Don’t hold your breath.

The 1857 break between the CRC and the RCA, in the States, happened for theological reasons which, right now earn little more than a footnote: psalm singing, lodge membership, open communion.

The powerful influence of Abraham Kuyper on some of the 1890s immigrants and most of the post-World War II contingent shaped the CRC into an institution that seemed far less like the RCA through the mid 20th century.

But much of that – and most all of this – is, for better or worse, history.

Times have changed. Today, the Academic Dean at Northwestern has a real Kuyperian pedigree; Dordt’s does not. Listen to this: Dordt’s President was, not long ago, runner up for the same job at Northwestern.

Today, we sing the same praise songs and even, sometimes, dance together.

Something’s gained; something’s lost – but that’s an essay for another day.

The 2014 Synod is right. It’s time for reconciliation.
 

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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