Sunday, February 3, 2008

Session Three: Lecture and Questions

Session 3: The Doctrinal Shift, Church Extension, and Missions

Read Bruggink and Baker, By Grace Alone, chapters 7-10.

Meeter, Meeting Each Other, chapter VI.

Read P&P, 35-76, W&W, 1-30

Please note: correct the Syllabus. The Word and World readings begin at page 1, not page 15.


Your Books for Session Three

Welcome to the Third Session. You will have less reading to do from now on, though I repeat that your reading De Jong was time well spent. I am sorry to report we don’t have a book like De Jong’s for the subsequent history of the RCA, that is, a single volume that puts it all together. So you will have to rely on what you can patch together from our readings. And you will find some overlap between the next sessions. As Tony Soprano says, Waddaya gonna do.

I am also sorry to report that By Grace Alone is not reliable as history. There are some embarrassing errors of both fact and interpretation in Chapter 10, “How We’ve Worshipped.” (For example, there was actually nothing in the confession of sins and absolution that made any difference to Mennonite-sympathizers, and John Henry Livingston had nothing to do with the translation of the Liturgy.) So I have to wonder about those other chapters in which I am less expert. But, as I said in the beginning, think of the book as a family picture album rather than dependable scholarship.

More happily, I am introducing you to two very excellent books: Piety and Patriotism (published 1976) and Word and World (published 1986). These collections of historical essays by RCA scholars are both edited by James W. Van Hoeven. These two books express the RCA’s collective attempt to understand its own history. Responding to the American Bi­cen­ten­ni­al, P&P looks at RCA history in terms of its American context, including the issues of patriotism and civil religion. W&W looks at RCA history in larger theological terms. These two books are wonderful. Their essays, while topical, are, grounded in the sources and in scholarly research. They are an example of RCA integrity and accountability. You will see below that I have offered you some questions in the form of a study guide on what to look out for in your reading.

The DRC becomes the RPDCNA

With this session we begin to study, at last, the Reformed Church in America in its own right as an free-standing Protestant denomination. But what’s a “denomination”? Please understand that a “denomination” is a very peculiar thing indeed, and that denominations did not exist for most of Christian history, though looking backward we can certainly trace the roots of them. Who knows how long they will continue to exist? Are they going the way of cassette tapes and VCRs? Steam locomotives? Or, like windmills, will they endure in some new form?

The very existence of denominations requires the external factors of immigration and the separation of church and state. These factors first came together in the American colonies and were formalized after the American Revolution. The ecclesiastical bodies left standing became, well, denominations, and the Dutch Reformed Church was among the first of them.

When the DRC became the RPDCNA, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America, it had a peculiar place among the denominations. Like the Episcopalians, Presbyter­i­ans, Congregationalists, and American Baptists, the RPDCNA had a long and worthy pedigree and it belonged to the old colonial establishment. It was fully at home in Protestant America. As I told you before, John Henry Livingston participated in George Washington’s inauguration.

But alone among this group of established denominations, it had come late to the English language. In this sense it was more like the second group of Protestant denominations, which included the Lutherans (of many stripes), the Moravians, and the German Reformed. These Protestants had emigrated from the Continent. These groups held onto their native languages even longer than we did. So the RPDCNA was in a peculiar spot between these two groups, and it had elements of both groups within it.

To be true to itself, the RPDCNA had always to recon­cile aspects of both the American establishment and the continental immigration. America was both its native soil and a constant problem. How “Americanized” should such an American denomination be? At the same time, was its basic mission still to serve its own ethnic group, like the Continental immigrant deno­mi­nations, or to witness to America at large, like the Protestant establishment? And if so, how distinctive should its witness be?

What we will see, and what contributed to the succession of the Christian Reformed Church, is that the RPDCNA came to believe that while its Doctrine and Practice was good and faithful and Biblical, it was not necessarily more right than anyone else’s. That is, it assumed and was content with a practical pluralism that more strict Calvinists would find intolerable. But that’s jumping ahead. That’s the story of Session Four.

The Intermezzo Period

This Third Session studies the least Dutch period in our history, the intermezzo from 1793 to 1847. This was the period between the resolution of our Constitution and the beginning of the Second Immigration, with the arrival of Van Raalte and the founding of Holland, Michigan.

After 1847, the denomination played more and more to its continental immigration side, while before it, the RPDCNA played more to its American side. This was the period when it was defined less by its ethnicity and more by its Doctrine, Government, and Worship. During these decades, to be “Dutch Reformed” was actually to be very American. The Dutch language which many of its members still remembered was not real Dutch but the Yankee-Dutch dialect which no European could speak. And from 1837 to 1841, one of its members, Martin Van Buren, was in the White House.

The very American way of being Dutch Reformed still lives on in Brooklyn, the borough of New York City where I serve, as did my father before me. The motto of Brooklyn, as you can see at Borough Hall, is “Eendracht mackt maght.” To this day in Brooklyn, you get blank looks if you identify yourself as RCA, but if you say that you are “Dutch Reformed,” every Brooklyn native knows what you mean (and it has no more to do with your ethnicity than if you say that you speak the English language). It’s about the landscape and the ground. It means you belong to one of the churches that define the map of Brooklyn and that sport the names of its neighborhoods. And it means you’re mostly likely to belong to a Black congregation.

At the center of Flatbush is the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, at the corner of Flatbush and Church Avenues. At the center of Flatlands is the Flat­lands Reformed Church. The center of the New Utrecht neighborhood is the New Utrecht Reformed Church, the center of the New Lots neighborhood is the New Lots Church, and at the center of the Park Slope neigh­bor­hood is Old First Church. The membership of each of these is whatever ethnic group now lives in that neighborhood, so three of the congregations are African-American and one is mostly Italian.

Brooklyn suggests how the RPDCNA might have evolved without the Second Immi­gra­tion of 1847. One could also look to Bergen and Monmouth counties in New Jersey, or to the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in New York. The classes in these regions might have eventually become part of a single Reformed Church in North America, representing the merger of the Dutch and German denominations, which in itself might have either anticipated or even prevented the subsequent United Church of Christ. Who knows? My point in raising this is not for nostalgia or “might-have-been,” but to illustrate the course we were on until the great course adjustment that came with the Second Immigration.

During this intermezzo period, the RPDCNA had quite remarkable growth in numbers, despite many failures and frustrations, as Chapter 7 of By Grace Alone indicates. The strongest growth was within New York and New Jersey, but there was also the growth that followed the pioneers who took their Conestoga wagons to the new lands for settlement beyond the Appa­la­chians. Two whole classes were organized in the Midwest already before the Second Immi­gra­tion, including the Classis of Michigan.

For example, three pioneers from upstate New York settled in Grand Rapids, worshipped for a few years with the Congregationalists, and then, on their own, founded the First Reformed Church and petitioned for a pastor to be sent to them. None of the three had particularly Dutch-sounding names. One of them was John Ball, after whom the Grand Rapids Zoo is named.

But as you will learn, after the first successes, the early classis of Michigan dwindled over time, and most of its congregations dissolved or became Presbyterian. The First Reformed Church of Grand Rapids limped along at first and almost suc­cumbed, if not for the influx of new immigrant members after 1847. These were the immi­grants who wanted to Americanize as quickly as possible, and to worship in English without delay.

You need to know the general story of these years. You need to know this to track those issues that continue to define our denomination, especially the problem of Church Extension, or Domestic Missions, or as we say today, “new church starts.” You need to know this story in order to have a fair estimation of the RCA as a denomination with something to offer in its terms. These are the years when the denomination was, for the first, time, free to keep its own house and set its own course. It could no longer blame any overseas body for any of its ills. And its switch to English would have the effect, in just one generation, of making it closer in feeling to its American cousins (Presbyterian and Congregational) than to its European mother.

At the same time, its very strong combination of Doctrine and Liturgy would make it always, I think, an acquired taste. The sympathies of American cultural development were all against what we stood for. We were Calvinist, stressing the sovereignty of God in a context of increasing humanism, and stressing divine election in a context of increasing Arminianism. The denominations that had the explosive growth were the Methodists and the Baptists, and their doctrines were much more acceptable to the American mind.

Two Particular Issues

The RPDCNA had to solve the problem of making its theological heritage relevant to North America. It had to have something to offer. In the attempt to do so, the denominations went through two significant theological changes. The first, and most subtle, is what I call the Doctrinal Shift. The second, and more obvious, is the theological embrace of patriotism. I want you to pay special attention to these two issues.

The Doctrinal Shift had its roots in the pietism of Bertholf and Frelinghuysen and the like. But it was the teaching and example of John Henry Livingston that brought it to fruition. As he was the professor who taught a couple generations of pastors, his acceptance of the extra two marks of the church from Johannes á Marck and his emphasis on “the experience of God” will have had a powerful influence on the whole denomination.

Constitutionally, we remained objectively Calvinist, and the Canons of Dort warned us against reading too much into our own experiences, and always to look instead to the objective promises of God. But our emphasis and practice changed.

Once again, we were trying to solve a problem, to manage a dialectic. But I wonder if we were unable to forge a compelling synthesis to offer to America, and this is partly why our first efforts at church extension eventually did not pan out.

You will find this Doctrinal Shift discussed most clearly in the first two essays in Word and World. Please take note of this and understand it. It may be hard for you fully to imagine or even consider its alternative, that is, what our common practical doctrines would be if we had not shifted. That’s to be expected, since the whole denomination of your experience is within the field of what it shifted to, rather than what it shifted from. The question for you is not so much whether you think it was good or bad for the RPDCNA to shift this way, but to understand the shift, and why it might have happened, and what its results were.

You need to know about the expansion of the marks of the church from three to five, under the Dutch theologian Johannes á Marck. You need to know what long-term affect this had on the RPDCNA. You need to know why Van Hoeven makes the claim that the Word and personal holiness replaced the Word and sacraments. I am assigning the discussion of this to your discussion groups.

The second issue is how the public witness of the RPDCNA tended to identify with American patriotism. This was connected with the new emphasis on missions both foreign and domestic. This was connected also with the second of Livinston’s three big theological impacts, and how missions moved from an emphasis on simple church growth to the Christianization of the nations. You need to reflect on why this can be understood as valid Calvinism. You need to reflect on the connection of evangelical Christianity with “democratic” goals. By going from Dutch to American, did we just replace one kind of culture-religion with another? And is it almost inevitable? I am assigning the reflection on this to your individual journaling. Don’t just journal your opinions. Please write in your Journals in terms of facts and specifics.

Okay, folks, go to it.

Study guide for Piety and Patriotism and Word and World.

1. What shift in the doctrine of the church did Johannes á Marck represent? What was he?

2. List the various church extension sites (domestic missions).

3. What were Jacob Jinning’s four problems and were they typical? The shape of things to come?

4. What were the 3 responsibilities of the Church Extension Committee of 1786?

5. How did Domestic Missions strategy change in 1819 & 1822, and how does Van Hoeven interpret it? To what extent was it successful?

6. How did J H Livingston change the RPDCNA from being hesitant on missions?

7. Identify J H Livingston’s contribution to the evolution of RPDCNA theology, 3 main areas.

8. What is Hopkinsianism, and what effect did it have on the RPDCNA?

9. What is the Mercersburg Theology, and what effect did it have on the RPDCNA?

10. What were some of the Church Extension efforts after the 1830's?

11. By the 1850's, was the RPDCNA Dutch-Calvinist, American Evangelical, or both?

12. What was the first immigrant group to be ministered to in the Nineteenth Century?

13. What other immigrant groups were ministered to after the 1890's?

14. How did Domestic Missions begin to change at the end of the 1800s?

Journal Questions

1. What shift in the doctrine of the church did a Marck represent? What was he?

2. What were Jacob Jinning’s four problems and were they typical? The shape of things to come?

3. How did Domestic Missions strategy change in 1819 & 1822, and how does Van Hoeven interpret it? To what extent was it successful?

4. How did Domestic Missions begin to change at the end of the 1800s?

5. How did RPDCNA theology shift towards supporting American patriotism? Why?

6. The Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God suggests that, of the several tasks of the church, the “sanctification of all of life” is prior to “winning souls for salvation.” Doesn’t this say that the Reformed Church should have a pastoral interest in the daily culture of its people?

7. Reflect on the relation between evangelization and patriotism.

Discussion Group Questions

1. Each group is assigned to come up with its own group definition of the Great Doctrinal Shift. You need to discuss its significance.

2. What was it about J H Livingston that changed the RPDCNA from being hesitant on missions to being pro-missions?

3. Identify J H Livingston’s contribution to the evolution of RPDCNA theology, 3 main areas.

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