(Note: The following was prepared and in the hands of the printer for publication in the Sept. 15th issue. Due to lack of space it has been held over until now.)
It seems to us it would be rather foolish to point out the very obvious difficulties which this booklet raises and upon this basis roundly condemn the position of the Liberated Churches. In the first place, our own history should warn us against such a procedure. We all recall, for example, how naive and foolish Dr. Hepp appeared when he proceeded in the same manner in the years of ’24. He had read something of the difficulties in America and thought with a few sweeps of his pen he could tick our leaders on the fingers as though they were unruly children and say: “See here, boys, come to time and get rid of your foolish notions.” As though that were all it amounted to.
Our own history proved time and again how difficult it is to properly approach and appreciate the position of others when separated by an ocean of distance and when correspondence alone can be the basis for judgment. Besides being separated physically we also learned that the environment and history through which the Lord has led His Church in the various portions of the globe certainly condition its construction of theology. For that reason again, it is so difficult to judge and distinguish. Time and again in ’24 and later, our position was misinterpreted and distorted by the leaders in the Netherlands. And that was true, even though to us, all the writings were so clear and simple a statement of Reformed truth.
It was not until personal contact was established and our struggle was properly viewed upon its own background, that our position was begun to be appreciated by a few. Hence, now also it would appear to be most foolish to simply inject our own subjective training and experience into an entirely different situation in the Netherlands. The result would probably be that we would be criticizing constructions and positions that were largely contrary to fact. That this is not mere hypothesis is a lesson from our own history and its reception in the Netherlands.
That same danger has already become evident in our judgment of the strife in the Netherlands. Our own Rev. Vos pointed this out in the Standard Bearers of Jan. and Feb. of 1948. There he makes clear that upon reading the literature of the Liberated Churches at first we were “shocked” and “suspicious”. But, says Rev. Vos, personal contact with Professor Schilder certainly “removed much misunderstanding” and was “a great blessing for both Dr. Schilder and us”.
This was also the opinion of Prof. Ophoff as is evident from the letter which our Committee for Correspondence wrote and sent to the Liberated Churches. Sometime after the visit of Dr. Schilder, this committee, of which Prof. Ophoff is a member, expressed the following: “(DUTCH REMOVED)” (Acts of Synod, 1948, page 88).
Translation: “We are convinced that we as Churches have much in common. Both Church groups stand on the basis of the Three Formulas of Unity. . . . we also believe the origin of your Churches was a Reformatory return to, and maintenance of, the time-honored and proven Reformed paths. . . . The visit of Prof. K. Schilder here among us has once again had the effect that we feel ourselves still more attracted to you.” This testimony, to which Prof. Ophoff also subscribed, is rather striking in view of the fact that the origin of the Liberated Churches is so closely connected with their peculiar covenant conception and also when we consider that Prof. Schilder spent the greater share of his time here explaining and expounding this covenant conception.
We also would prefer, therefore, to proceed on the assumption that the leaders of the Liberated Churches are men of erudition and scholarship, whose purpose is to maintain and develop the Reformed faith. Again the very obviousness of the forthright expressions in some of their writings, which to our mind contradict this judgment, should indicate that these difficulties have been met and harmonized, to their thinking at least, with the Reformed position. Here also closer contact has left this judgment. In the same issues of the Standard Bearer referred to above, Rev. Vos also wrote: “We know now that all pelagianism is wholly foreign to the conception of the covenant and baptism on the part of Dr. Schilder”. And practically without exception, the judgment of those who attended the conferences with Dr. Schilder while he visited in this country, was that the Liberated Churches were fundamentally Reformed. (That sounds a great deal like the Synod of ’24). We should not become guilty, therefore, of raising walls or making accusations which will stifle all further discussion.
In the second place, a severe denunciation of the Liberated Churches upon the basis of this article alone would be foolish because of the very nature of the booklet. We do not believe that even a purely objective criticism of this writing upon its face value would serve to enlighten discussion of the differences which separate us. This appeal was not written as a polemic over against our position but meant to bring out most sharply the differences within the Netherlands for the youth there. We believe it is complimentary and to the credit and praise of the youth in the Netherlands that they enter into the life and activities of their Church and desire to further their cause. We are inclined to wonder how many young people in this country, who bear the name Reformed, would study and understand such a writing as Professor Veenhof’s.
But, the point is, that once again this is not all that can be, or has been said. Here too, the advice of Rev. Vos is pertinent, that one investigate all the sources before building structures with resulting conclusions. Further, that though there are differences between the Liberated Churches and us, “we certainly would not be guilty of the sin to refuse to hear the other side. . . .” To our mind, this not only demands patience and an attempt to appreciate one another’s viewpoint, but also personal contact and discussion. And that before the intervening walls are built too high too scale; as was done in the U. S. in 1924 and in the Netherlands in 1942.
Finally, in order to properly judge the writing of Professor Veenhof, we should bear in mind that it does not represent a position which is settled and binding in the Liberated Churches. Especially in respect to some of the details and intricacies we are rather sure that many in these Churches would not subscribe to all that was written. In the Liberated Churches the situation is such that there is still room for discussion and difference. In this way they hope to develop and formulate the truth and that should be our purpose. This can only be accomplished through a fair and open exchange of thought which is conducted upon a respectful level of polemics.
Here, too, we do well to recall what Rev. Vos wrote in the Standard Bearer of January 1, 1948: “We have learned to know Prof. Schilder as a beloved brother in Christ, as a faithful servant of that same Christ, as a man mighty in the Scriptures, as a truly Reformed man whom to throw out of the church communion cries to heaven. Of course, there are differences! Do all ministers. . . . think alike on all dogmas? You know they do not! Follow the path you have begun to tread and you will end up with peace, but it will be the peace of the graveyard, where no one disagrees with no one. They are alike still, but it is the stillness of death. The end of the pathway you have followed in 1924-1946 is the path that will surely end with Roman Catholicism where there is but one voice of authority: the Pope!
“. . .I wish you could have seen our communion, could have attended our conferences, could have heard the words that were spoken on both sides which spoke of warmth, of love, of trust, of appreciation. And all this in the knowledge that we differ on some points. What of it? No one has all the truth. And we will learn one from the other.”
This would seem to be the honorable course and purpose. Hence, in our comment we would like to draw a few general lines in the hope that they will evoke further discussion.
It hardly need be said again, that the fundamental differences between us and the Liberated Churches concerns the idea of the covenant itself; or the question: what is the covenant? But exactly this fundamental difference makes it difficult to constructively criticize any one particular writing. The result of this difference is that the content of all the various related concepts are at variance. And consequently, if we simply proceed oblivious of this difference we would again be injecting our thought into a wholly different structure. It would appear to be most beneficial and helpful to a fruitful discussion, therefore, if some of the Liberated brethren would carefully examine and criticize our position as presented in the brochure of Rev. Hoeksema entitled: “De Geloovigen en Hun Zaad”; which has already received wide circulation in the Netherlands. And this should be done in the light of what the author writes in the preface to the second edition. Perhaps the Rev. Doekes could continue his discussions.
In the second place, an elucidation of the relationship between God’s council of predestination and the covenant according to the concept of the Liberated brethren can be expected towards clarification. We maintain that the very history of Abraham “emphasizes most strongly, both in word and act, the absolute monergism of the divine power in accomplishing the things promised; . . . .” And again: “Election is a principle entering specifically into the application of redemption; …. Election is intended to bring out the gratuitous character of grace. With regard to the objective part of the work of redemption there is scarcely any need of stressing this. That man himself made no contribution towards accomplishing the atonement is obvious in itself. But no sooner does the redeeming work inter into the subjectivity of man than the obviousness ceases, although the reality of the principle is not, of course, in the least abated. The semblance easily results, that in receiving and working out the subjective benefits of grace for his transformation, the individual man has to some extent been the decisive factor. And to affirm this, to however small a degree, would be to detract from the glory of God” (Last italics mine, W.H.) This quotation is from Biblical Theology by the late Prof. G. Vos, pages 94 and 108. We found his discussion of these things very enlightening and instructive.
We do not mean thereby to declare that the Liberated brethren deny this. In fact, we make bold to state that it is not sufficient to simply declare that “these beliefs have strictly no place in their covenant theology, which is thoroughly Arminian.” And we also expect that this will be refuted and clarified by the Liberated.
Finally, in general, we would appreciate an exegetical exposition of the more classic passages in Scripture that deal with the problems involved; especially Rom. 9 and Gal. 3. Hence, we also make an appeal that these be forthcoming.
But to return to the Appel of Professor Veenhof. The professor maintained that baptism is a seal of God’s promise to all those who are properly baptized, without distinction. Further that the realization of this promise is contingent, to some extent at least, upon its proper reception by the baptized individual. This is the construction that is most difficult for us to follow and harmonize with Scripture. Although we prefer to say with Scripture, that baptism seals a fact, namely—the righteousness that is by faith ( ), this would not yet remove the difficulty. Whether God declares something factually or in the form of a promise, the result is the same in respect to those to whom it is declared. Either a fact or a promise that God declares is executed. His promises are also always factually realized.
Hence, the answer which Professor Veenhof gave to the question: How does it occur that many of those who are baptized are not saved, was disappointing and weak. On the one hand, the author maintained emphatically that each and every baptism possesses exactly the same content and power. But on the other hand, in answer to the question above, he writes that the ungodly make that baptism powerless. The question naturally arises: Is it possible that the ungodly possess an apparently greater power than God? This question and problem certainly demands clarification.
In the second place, at times Professor Veenhof seems to pre-suppose grace in covenant children after all, even though he repudiates the position that baptism seals internal grace; since he wants nothing of such an assumption. He writes: “In the kingdom of heaven. . . .God includes with the fathers, also their children as His children and that in that way the grace of salvation is extended to the as yet unborn children and that without distinction.” In fact, here it seems is a grace even preceding birth, and to all without distinction.
In close connection with the above, the professor also suggests a baptismal grace in the question: “Does this grace which is presented in baptism always lead to the full salvation of all those who are baptized?” This certainly approaches the teaching of a subjective covenantal grace which is common to all, at least within the bounds of the covenant. If this is the contention of the writer, here for example, is a position to which other leaders in the Liberated Churches would not subscribe.
It is difficult to harmonize this with what the Professor wrote some time ago and which we also transcribed in the Standard Bearer. At that time, concerning God’s attitudes he stated: “The result of. . . .election is that there are now living in this world two specific groups of individuals. There are the elect, to whom God in Christ reveals His grace. These are the vessels of mercy that partake of God’s disposition of grace. And over against them are the reprobate, the vessels of wrath, towards whom God’s disposition of wrath is poured out unto eternal destruction.” And again: “But besides, there is in God an attitude of wrath against all the reprobate. And that disposition permeates all of God’s speech and dealing with the reprobate. It directs and motivates all His deeds for and in them.”
Finally, the alternative of refusing the position of the Professor is not at all to accept the Synodical standpoint of pre-supposed regeneration. This too we reject as an unwarranted assumption, just as firmly as we do a promise for all. We maintain that the proper development of the truth of the covenant and baptism is in the direction of the beautiful and Scriptural organic conception as presented in “De Geloovigen en Hun Zaad”, by Rev. Hoeksema. We believe that this contains the directive outline which follows the framework of Scripture and should be maintained and defended.