Small beacons of hope

I do my very best to stay informed about religious and church events in the Netherlands. This week three things caught my attention. First, I saw an item in my newspaper about the planned fusion, in the Dutch village of Langerak, of two congregations belonging to different orthodox Reformed denominations. These denominations were split-offs from the larger Reformed bodies and date from 1944 and 1967, respectively. Most Dutch people would not know in what ways these various Reformed denominations on the right side of the ecclesial spectrum actually differ. And I must admit that I am also not always totally sure. But, fortunately, here and there people discover that differences can be bridged, and that there often are many more things that unite than divide, and that it is possible to step over the shadows of the past.

The second item that was reported in the press concerned a few Roman-Catholic women who were baptized by immersion in a place in the center of the country. They belong to a charismatic current in the Catholic Church and wanted to confirm their bond with Christ in this biblical manner. This did in no way jeopardize their membership in their church, even though it was emphasized by the authorities that immersion is, of course, a beautiful symbol, but must not be viewed as a real baptism. But even so . . . there is, apparently enough space in the church to tolerate the decision of these women.

A third event during this week was especially impressive. After four centuries the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands declared that their church had been wrong in its historic attitude toward the Remonstrant Church and that the age-old controversy should not have escalated as it did. In the seventeenth century a bitter conflict erupted about two opposing views regarding the road to eternal salvation. The traditional Calvinist view that before all eternity God already decided who would be saved and who would be lost, was vehemently opposed by the supporters of Arminius, a theology professor at the University of Leyden, who maintained that the Bible teaches that every human being has a free will and can decide to accept or reject the offer of salvation. When national politics got heavily involved in the matter, things escalated beyond control.

The famous Synod of Dordt condemned the Arminians. The end result was the establishment of a new denomination—the Remonstrant Brotherhood—which exists until this very day. However, developments in the church did continue. Most Calvinist Protestants (except spme smaller orthodox denominations) in the Netherlands nowadays only pay lip service to the original ideas about predestination. And, as far as the Remonstrants are concerned, they gradually moved to the very liberal part of the ecclesial spectrum. Many of its members are attracted by the fact that they may write their own personal confession of faith!

Seventh-day Adventists, with their belief in man’s free will, are Arminians. It should be noted that Protestant America—which for a major part has its roots in Calvinism—has been quite reticent in embracing the doctrine of predestination. This teaching did not fit well with the American pragmatic ‘do’-culture, in which every person must be responsible for all aspects of his life.

What do I take away from these three items that appeared in the Dutch press of this past week? They do have something in common, namely that space was given to diversity. These three events show that, apparently, at times it is possible to distance oneself from earlier standpoints and to provide space for thoughts and practices that differ from traditional views. This inspires optimism. Much that happens in the church is very human, but now and then it is clear that the Spirit is still at work. That gives hope when one, all too often, is confronted with seemingly unchangeable standpoints.