3. The Netherlands

The territory of today’s Netherlands is not identical with the Netherlands of the time of the Reformation. This included today’s Belgium and Luxemburg. The first Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake in Brussels in 1523. Until about 1560 one must assume the coexistence of various groups and movements of reformational persuasion. These were heavily persecuted, most of all in the South of the Netherlands. There was a whole series of pastors and intellectuals influenced by followers of Erasmus and by Luther. Besides this there existed from about 1530 various groups of so-called Anabaptists, which were to a large extent the reason for the rise of the Anabaptist Rule in Munster in 1534/1535. After the breaking up of the Anabaptist rule in Munster, the Anabaptists were persecuted. Only from around 1550 did a second generation of new Anabaptist movements emerge, initiated by Menno Simons, after whom the Mennonites are named. These movements also founded churches.
From about 1550 the members of the Reformed Church, above all in the South of the Netherlands, founded their own underground church. They named themselves “Churches under the cross,” on the model of the Huguenots. The church in Emden played an important role for the rootless pastors of this underground church. It was thus called “moederkerk” (mother church). In 1561 Guido de Brés drew up the Confessio Belgica (the Dutch Confession), which partly goes back to the Confessio Gallicana. The Heidelberg Catechism was also translated into Dutch in the year of its emergence in 1563. Both documents formed the basis of Dutch Reformed doctrine.
The splitting up of the Netherlands started in 1566. The Spanish Duke of Alba invaded the Netherlands by order of its sovereign, the Spanish king Philipp II, for the purpose of subjugating the members of the Reformed Church. However, powerful resistance arose under the leadership of William of Orange (1533-1584) with the consequence of the 80 Years War (1568-1648). By 1648 the South (today’s Belgium and Luxembourg) still remained Spanish and thus Roman-Catholic. The North (today’s Netherlands), on the other hand, was confessionally pluralistic, with leanings towards the Reformed Confession.
The Reformed churches met for the first time in 1568 for the so-called Wesel Convention (thus abroad in the Lower Rhine). The first synod took place in Emden in 1571. From then on one can speak of a Dutch Reformed Church. At this synod a model church constitution for the later Reformed churches in the Netherlands was agreed upon.

From the “Emden Church Constitution of 1571”

1. No community should claim precedence over other communities, no pastor over other pastors, and no deacon over other deacons. Rather, they should avoid even the slightest suspicion of this and every opportunity for it.
6. In the individual communities there should take place sessions or consistories of pastors, elders and deacons at least once a week at a time and place which seem most convenient for the individual communities.
7. Besides these sessions there should take place every three or six months assemblies of several neighbouring communities, whenever it seems purposeful or necessary to them.
8. Besides this, a special assembly of all the communities scattered throughout Germany and East Friesland should take place, and in the same way an assembly of all the communities in England as well an assembly of the communities which are under the cross.
9. Lastly an assembly of all the Dutch communities should be held every two years.


Questions for further work

1. What model of community and communities can be seen here?

2. Does the Emden Church Constitution of 1571 advocate a more presbyterial church model, which reinforces the individual church communities, or rather a synodal church model, which reinforces their working together?


Soon after 1571, the organisation of the various different churches took place. Provincial synods were formed and in 1578 the first Dutch general synod took place. It was already clear early on that the members of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands could not look back to a uniform origin. Rather, there were various people by whom one oriented oneself. There was above all Calvin, but besides him also Zwingli and Erasmus. These various orientations led to a severe conflict. The Leuven Professor Jacobus Arminius took the view that the predestination (election) of human beings occurrs because God has foreseen their faith. His opponent, Franciscus Gomarus, who also taught in Leuven, took the opposite view that faith is only given to those who are chosen by God. The theological background was the question of the relation between divine action (election) and human action (faith), which were thought to compete with one another. Both theologians gained many followers. Both the remonstrants (followers of Arminius) and contra-remonstrants (followers of Gomarus) filed their petitions with the Dutch state. In 1618/19 the general synod took place in Dordrecht, which decided in favour of the contra-remonstrants. Subsequently there arose beside the Reformed Church a small remonstrants’ church, which still exists today (Remonstrantsche Broederschap).
In the 17th Century, which is also called the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands, the Reformed Church developed more and more into a state church. There appeared the “Statenvertaling,” the Dutch translation of the Bible, whose influence on culture and language is comparable with that of the Luther translation in Germany. In theology, through the assimilation of Aristotelian philosophy, there emerged an orthodox orientation which was concerned with the preservation of true doctrine. However, there soon arose two counter-movements to this orthodoxy. First, that of the so-called “Nadere reformatie,” which had in view the praxis pietatis, the renewal of life. The founder of this movement was Gisbert Voetius, who was also the founder of Utrecht University. Second, the federal theology of Johannes Coccejus from Bremen, which had the idea of the covenant at its centre and taught a historically progressive revelation of the covenants between God and the human being. In the course of the 18th Century the Enlightenment also became influential in theology. In Groningen there arose after 1830 an orientation which focused on the presence of the love of God in Jesus, Jesus in this way being the example for all humanity.

Abraham Kuyper

Partly as a protest against this influencial Groningen orientation, there took place from 1843 on the so-called “Afscheiding” (segregation) under the leadership of the pastor Hendrik de Cock. From this “Afscheiding” a small church soon developed with several thousand members who also formed their own synod. This was persecuted until 1840. Then in 1870 Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) entered the scene, causing a stir. He established his own newspaper, his own university (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and his own party. Kuyper, who had had the purpose of waking the Reformed Church out of its sleep and of overcoming liberalism, met resistance in the Hervormden Kerk. When agreement was no longer possible, he broke with the Hervormden Kerk and founded his own church communities (in a movement called “Doleantie” [from dolere = to mourn]). Over 200000 people followed Kuyper. In 1892 the Afscheiding and Doleantie merged to form the “Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland” (Reformed Church in the Netherlands). Around 1900 this new church encompassed roughly 8% of the Dutch population. Further church divisions in the 20th Century have led to the existence of 17 Reformed churches in the Netherlands today, of which the majority are admittedly very small. Nevertheless, since the 1960s a counter-movement has existed: the Hervormde Kerk and the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland together with the very small Protestant-Lutheran Church have taken steps towards one another on a not yet completed path. This process is called “Samen op weg” (together on the way).
The Protestant churches together make up roughly 20% of the population in the Netherlands today. There are somewhat more Roman-Catholics and over 40% do not belong to any church at all. The Netherlands are thus the most thoroughly secularised country in West Europe. Many church buildings are no longer used for church business.