Previous article in this series: March 1, 2013, p. 244.
We are dealing with an article in the Mid-American Journal of Theology entitled “Not Subtle Enough: An Assessment of Modern Scholarship on Herman Bavinck’s Reformulation of the Pactum Salutis Contra ‘Scholastic Subtlety’” (MJT 22, 2011), written by Dr. L. R. O’Donnell III.
As stated in the last issue, O’Donnell does his best to put as much distance as possible between Bavinck’s covenantal views and those of certain twentieth century theologians charged with “extreme formulations” of this doctrine, Hoeksema being one so labeled. The charge brought against Hoeksema and these others is that they in their covenantal views are guilty of “ontologizing” the covenant of God (by grounding it in His very being and nature as God triune).
This is not a charge O’Donnell wants brought against Bavinck and his understanding of the covenant of God triune. He attempts to demonstrate that Bavinck’s treatment was too carefully “nuanced” to be guilty of being charged with such scholastic subtleties. This, he claims, is something certain recent scholars have missed in Bavinck (due to their lack of subtle discernment), or they would not have placed Bavinck’s covenant views in the same category as Hoeksema’s.
We ask, why does O’Donnell consider this “ontologizing” of the covenant so serious an error? What dangerous leaven does he claim it contains?
Because, as pointed out in the last issue, O’Donnell claims such a view, “. . . when pressed to its logical conclusion, would deny the contingency [!] of creation and the pure grace [!] of the re-creation [the salvation of the world through the redemption of man].”
In other words, he views it as being an impingement on the freedom of God.
If the essence of God’s own inner-triune being and life is covenantal and God is ‘federal’ in His very being (which is certainly Hoeksema’s conviction), then God is compelled of inner necessity to work the covenant of grace in a certain way, along certain lines. It is all logically, necessarily, pre-determined.
And is that not an impingement on the sovereign freedom of God?
The answer to which is, No.
The issue here is really little different than the issue facing the church and its theologians nearly a millennium ago, the one Anselm raised and then answered in a book entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why God became man). Did He have to?
To that question there are two right, though at first flush seemingly contradictory, answers. Yes. And yet, No! And each can be the true answer to the question.
This is no paradox. It all depends on the context of the question.
If you mean, as Anselm did, “Did God have to become man in order to redeem man?” then the answer is “Yes.”
Read the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 5. It has everything to do with who God is, namely, the most righteous One. In other words, with God’s being.
Satisfaction had to be made, and the very character (natures) of the mediator of the covenant is accordingly prescribed.
This is an ontological issue.
God bound by the truth of who He is in Himself!
We may not speak of God as free to save man in some other way, not as the righteous God. Did not Christ Himself (I speak as a man) explore that possibility in the garden? “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless . . . .”
But there was no other way for God Himself to save sinners, that is, not if He was to be true to Himself and uphold His own righteousness, a righteousness that has to do with God’s very Being.
Yes, because of ontological realities, who God is in Himself, and due to His commitment to being true to Himself, for God to save His own He had to become man and enter our flesh to satisfy all the demands of His own law and righteousness.
That said, does that impugn on the freedom of God, God’s sovereign freedom?
What Reformed man would dare say so?
Significantly, non-Reformed theologians of various stripes have argued against the Reformed (and biblical) doctrine of satisfaction for sin being demanded by God’s very being, God bound by who He is in Himself, the most righteous one. And they have done so by charging the Reformed, creedal view with the very same charges Loonstra and O’Donnell have brought against Hoeksema’s and others’ covenantal views, namely, with being too ‘scholastic’ and an infringement on God’s divine freedom. In fact, this is a charge that is being heard in Reformed circles these days against the Catechism, in particular Lord’s Days IV and V: “They are so ‘scholastic’ and would bind the God who has a love for all, to working salvation for sinners only along the lines of our view of absolute justice, introducing talk about wrath and hell, infringing upon his divine freedom and mercy.”
And the charge (“too scholastic by far”) has become the excuse to jettison the Catechism and no longer to be bound by such doctrines in their preaching.
That said, no truly Reformed man in the name of God’s divine freedom would do so.
First, because for Jehovah God, being true to Himself while He accomplishes His own will and good pleasure, never compromising His being, is exactly what constitutes His true freedom. Between what pleases Him and His decrees, works, and being, there is always perfect consistency. Harmony. Yes, logical consistency.
Something that cannot be said about mere mortal beings, especially not sinful ones.
And second, because God did not have to save man at all! As our Canons state, “. . . God would have done [fallen man] no injustice to leave them all [us all] to perish” (Head I, Art. 1).
Why did God become man?
Because He had to? God had no choice in the matter?
No! Not that kind of necessity—some kind of pantheistic inevitability that binds God, leaving Him no choice but to reveal Himself as the saving, “incarnating” God (“pantheistic” being the word O’Donnell throws at Hoeksema’s covenant concept).
Not if God did not will to save fallen man. God had the sovereign freedom not to do so, if He so chose.
But, that was not His sovereign choice.
Behold the free grace of God’s freely determined decree to work reconciliation.
And yet God, by the very nature of His being, bound to work it out in a certain way. With God, righteousness is not a negotiable virtue or issue.
The point is, as it is with our redemption through the divine necessity of the atonement, so it is with God’s covenant with fallen mankind.
The great Jehovah was not bound to covenant with fallen man. He did not have to reveal His covenant. There is not some kind of ontological inevitability, some absolute inner necessity, that compels God whether He will or not to covenant with fallen man. He remains sovereignly free to do so or not to.
Nonetheless, when God determines to enter into covenant with mankind and reveal His covenant to men, it would be a covenant in keeping with His being. Yes, it must be, because that is who He is, Jehovah, God-triune, which is to say, because of who they are, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And this, God be thanked, the three great ‘I AMs’ in their eternal council in sovereign freedom chose (took counsel) to do.
It is no impingement on God triune’s sovereign freedom to covenant within Himself to remain in covenant as sovereign friend of a remnant of mankind. He was also free, sovereignly free, to have determined to sever all ties with man once man fell, just as with Satan and the fallen angels.
But this was not Jehovah God’s good pleasure when it came to the creature man.
That said, the reality is that the difference between Loonstra and O’Donnell amounts to this—Loonstra was honest enough to see the inherent, undeniable connection between Bavinck’s covenant view and that which followed in Hoeksema (though he was not happy with the direction either theologian went), whereas O’Donnell refuses to acknowledge the fundamental similarities, trying to make the differences define the two views.
Theologians have done the same between Calvin and Beza, not liking Beza’s strongly worded, closely argued, conclusions. So the charge: Beza the “scholastic,” Beza the “hyper,” Beza the “extremist.”
For all that, can it be validly argued that Beza did not follow in the line of Calvin, so as to be closely identified with Calvin? Beza really not so Calvinistic after all? History puts that claim to bed. And Calvin would have had stronger words for such an allegation, we are sure.
That said, we reiterate, it is becoming plain, with the publishing of Bavinck’s Dogmatics, that there is a concerted effort afoot to divorce Hoeksema’s covenant views from those of Bavinck, lest any get the impression that Hoeksema’s covenantal views are closely related to those of the esteemed Bavinck, two covenantal theologians thinking along the same lines as they trace the covenant of grace back to its deepest source and fountain.
Evidently that would put Bavinck in poor company.
Or maybe put Hoeksema in company some judge too good? Maybe he was not so ‘hyper’ after all?
Neither of which appears to be the popular trend these days.
But the question is, why?
Let it be said here already, we are convinced it is more complex than simply that some have taken a personal dislike to Hoeksema for whatever reason and cannot find it in themselves to write a good word about him and his views, no matter what.
There is something deeper afoot here, something of deeper theological significance for our day and age.
We intend to address that in time.
But before we give our explanation of what we are convinced is behind this concerted effort to drive a wedge between Bavinck and Hoeksema’s covenant views, we would call the reader’s attention to another article in the MJT entitled “Covenant and Election in the Theology of Herman Bavinck” (MJT 19, 2008, pp. 69-115)—written by Dr. C. Venema.
As becomes plain from this article, it is not only O’Donnell who is committed to driving a wedge between Bavinck’s covenant view and that of Hoeksema—even when it comes to election and the covenant, the attempt is made to disconnect the view of the one theologian from the other.
No small task, and rather telling.
But the Doctor from Mid-America Seminary sets about to do just that, as we will demonstrate next time.