Part II - The Kromminga Case (1945-1947)
by Cedric Parsels
This is a new series from Rev. Cedric Parsels covering the history of gravamina in the Christian Reformed Church.
According to Prof. Smith, the first case (that we know of) involving a ‘confessional-difficulty gravamen’ was that of Prof. D.H. Kromminga. Prof. Kromminga was Professor of Church History at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1928 until his death in 1947. More to the point, he was a premillennialist. And, in the early 1940’s, Eerdmans Publishing Company approached Prof. Kromminga to ask whether he would like to write a book on the last things, an offer that he gladly accepted. As the book was going to print, however, he discovered to his dismay that some of his views on the last things were in conflict with the Belgic Confession. Because he was a man of integrity, Prof. Kromminga told Eerdmans to remove the offending chapters from his book and he then promptly communicated his disagreement to Synod 1945.
Looking at Prof. Kromminga’s communication to Synod 1945, it is understandable why Prof. Smith might conclude that Prof. Kromminga’s communication was what she would call a confessional-difficulty gravamen. First, Prof. Kromminga makes it clear that he disagrees with the Belgic Confession (cf., Acts of Synod 1947, p. 159). Second, despite acknowledging his disagreement, Prof. Kromminga does not call for the Confession’s revision. And, third, he essentially asks synod to grant him an exemption from having to believe what the Confession teaches on the point in question (cf., Acts of Synod 1946, p. 108). All of this sounds very similar to how Prof. Smith and the denominational offices define a confessional-difficulty gravamen.
If we look closer, however, it becomes clear that there are significant differences between Prof. Kromminga’s communication and what Prof. Smith would call a ‘confessional-difficulty gravamen’. To see these differences, it is important to note that there was considerable debate at Synod 1945 over how to categorize Prof. Kromminga’s communication. Was Prof. Kromminga’s communication a gravamen (i.e., a confessional-revision gravamen) or was it something else?
The 1945 study committee appointed to study Prof. Kromminga’s views concluded that Prof. Kromminga’s communication was “essentially a [confessional-revision] gravamen in which [the teaching of the Belgic Confession was] incriminated” (Acts of Synod 1946, p.107). Accordingly, they began by processing Prof. Kromminga’s communication in that way.
Prof. Kromminga, however, disagreed with the 1945 study committee’s analysis. He protested that he had not “incriminated” the Belgic Confession (Acts of Synod 1946, p.108). As he put it, “I am not ready to say definitely, that the [teaching] from which I deviate is in conflict with Holy Writ. All I asked from Synod  in my first communication was substantiation for that [teaching] from Holy Writ. Lacking that, I see no valid reason for allowing this [teaching] to stand in the way of a fresh study of the whole eschatological field…” (Acts of Synod 1946, p.108).
This exchange between the 1945 study committee and Prof. Kromminga is significant in two ways. First, it throws significant doubt on Prof. Smith’s claim that the concept of a confessional-difficulty gravamen was running around in the 1940s. Or, at least, if the concept was running around, it hadn’t gotten very far in the broader Christian Reformed community. Of the members on the 1945 study committee, three were pastors in Grand Rapids, one ministered in Ann Arbor, one in Holland, MI, and one in Chicago. And the minister from Chicago, The Rev. William Kok, had just spent around two years (1940-1942) serving as the assistant to Pres. Henry Schultze at Calvin College. If the concept of a ‘confessional-difficulty gravamen’ was around in the early 1940s, it is very strange that none of the men on this committee seem to have run into it or, at least, applied it to Prof. Kromminga’s case.
Second, the exchange between the study committee and Prof. Kromminga shows that Prof. Kromminga was not merely asking for “information and/or a clarification of the confession”, as would be the case, if he were submitting something like a confessional-difficulty gravamen (C.O., Suppl., 5-A.2). Instead, Prof. Kromminga was asking Synod 1945 to justify the Confession’s teaching. Again, according to Prof. Kromminga, “All I asked from Synod  in my first communication was substantiation for [the Belgic Confession’s teaching] from Holy Writ. Lacking that, I see no valid reason for allowing this [teaching] to stand in the way of a fresh study of the whole eschatological field…” (Acts of Synod 1946, p.108, emphasis added). Indeed, Prof. Kromminga later admits that he was to a certain extent ‘incriminating’ the Belgic Confession. “I do not incriminate [the Confession] any further than to say that it should not stand in the way of a free and all-around discussion of the eschatological field and the problems which that field presents” (Acts of Synod 1946, p.109). Accordingly, Prof. Kromminga’s ‘communication’ is much more in keeping with the requirements for what we would today call a confessional-revision gravamen (cf., C.O., Suppl., 5-C.1).
How, then, did the case of Prof. Kromminga turn out? Did Synod overturn the CRC’s longstanding policy of requiring ‘unconditional’ subscription from its officebearers? No. But not, as Prof. Smith suggests, for the simple reason that Prof. Kromminga died in 1947 before synod could act any further on his request. Synod 1946 itself had the opportunity to consider at least two proposals that would have granted Prof. Kromminga the exemption he had asked for or, at least, something like what he had asked for. But it rejected them.
The first of these proposals came as a recommendation from the 1945 study committee. In an attempt to avoid having to do the work Synod 1945 had given it (i.e., to conduct a full-scale study of biblical eschatology in order to determine whether Prof. Kromminga’s views were correct and, consequently, whether the confessions were in need of revision), the study committee proposed a pragmatic compromise. They recommended that Synod allow Prof. Kromminga to openly advocate for his anti-confessional views provided that he presented them in a ‘hypothetical manner” (Acts of Synod 1946, p.110).
Synod 1946, however, emphatically rejected this proposal. According to Synod, “To adopt this [recommendation from] the Study Committee would immediately set a precedent and the door would be open for anyone in our ministry to voice dissenting views from any statement or doctrine which the church professes in its Forms of Unity, provided he do so in a same hypothetical manner. Even such doctrines as the atonement, the covenant, and election would not be exempt” (Acts of Synod 1946, Art. 136, p.102). Clearly, Synod 1946 was in no mood to give officebearers the freedom to voice dissent “from any statement or doctrine which the church professes in its Forms of Unity.”
The second proposal came from Prof. Kromminga himself. This proposal did not appear as a formal recommendation. It was, however, explicitly suggested in a letter Prof. Kromminga sent to the 1945 study committee, a letter which that committee included in its final report to Synod 1946. According to Prof. Kromminga, one way that Synod 1946 could resolve the problem before them would be to allow officebearers, such as himself, to disagree with the confessional doctrine in question, but nevertheless keep the non-revised wording of the Confession in place as “a record of what the dominant or prevailing or general conviction both of the [Confession’s] authors and of our church constituency at the present is on the point involved (Acts 1946, p.108). In other words, Prof. Kromminga was asking Synod to change the CRC’s historic policy with regard to confessional subscription. Instead of having to believe all the doctrines contained in the confessions, Prof. Kromminga was suggesting that Synod could grant him an exception to this one doctrine.
Did Synod 1946 take up this proposal? No. Instead, it continued to treat Prof. Kromminga’s communication in the same way that we would treat a confessional-revision gravamen today. It appointed a new study committee to do the work that the first study committee had refused to do. Unfortunately, Synod 1946 botched the new study committee’s mandate. Clearly, Synod 1946 wanted to reexamine the Biblical basis for the Belgic Confession’s teaching, but all they ended up tasking the committee to do was to determine whether or not Prof. Kromminga’s views were in conflict with the Confession, i.e., something that everyone already knew to be true! Unfortunately, Prof. Kromminga died before Synod 1947 could correct Synod 1946’s mistake. And the case was dropped.
Before concluding, it is worth addressing Prof. Smith’s claim that her views on the Kromminga case are the views of Dr. Henry DeMoor. To substantiate this claim, she cites Dr. DeMoor’s Church Order Commentary (pp.48-49). Personally, I find Dr. DeMoor’s description of this case to be ambiguous. He never specifies that Prof. Kromminga’s ‘gravamen’ was a ‘confessional-difficulty gravamen.’ And even his description of the issues involved in the case, i.e., that Prof. Kromminga had “questions about our doctrines concerning the last things,” is not very revealing about which category of gravamen he thinks Kromminga’s communication would best fit. In any case, as we have seen, Prof. Kromminga didn’t just have "questions." In essence, Prof. Kromminga was asking Synod 1945 to either justify the Belgic Confession’s teaching or let him publish. This is not a mere “request for information and/or clarification of the confession.” It is a challenge (Suppl., Art. 5, B.2). Synod 1946 saw this and acted accordingly.
So, in conclusion, as your classis and council meet to discuss gravamina, don’t be misled into thinking that Prof. Smith’s and the denominational office’s approach to gravamina is one that stretches back all the way to the 1940s. Both the substance of Prof. Kromminga’s communication and the way in which both Synods 1945 and 1946 dealt with it strongly suggest that Prof. Kromminga’s communication is better characterized as a confessional-revision gravamen. Furthermore, Synod 1946 was given every opportunity to give Prof. Kromminga an exception to the doctrine with which he had a difficulty, but it chose not to do so. Instead, Synods 1945 and 1946 preserved the CRC’s historic policy of ‘unconditional’ subscription. Indeed, we will see further evidence of this in Part III when we consider a couple of cases that arose in the 1950s and 60s.