Previous article in this series: March 15, 2013, p. 268.
As we noted in our last article, there is evidence of a concerted effort on the part of some to distance Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant as far as possible from Hoeksema’s, driving a wedge between the two. Dr. L. R. O’Donnell III’s article in the Mid-America Journal of Theology (MJT 22, 2011) was one instance. And an article by Dr. C. Venema entitled “Covenant and Election in the Theology of Herman Bavinck” (MJT 19, 2008, pp. 69-115) is another.
As previously stated, it is not our purpose to go into an extensive critique of Venema’s article on Bavinck’s views.
If we did so, our critique of Dr. Venema’s article would not be all criticism. There are things to commend about Venema’s article.
He demonstrates, for instance, that Bavinck maintained that, in accordance with Scripture, believing parents are to view and treat their children as regenerate and having spiritual life, cautioning “. . . against the ‘pietistic’ tendency to separate baptism and regeneration in such a way that the non-regeneration [!] of baptized children is virtually assumed until evidence to the contrary is forthcoming” (p. 109).
At the same time the article makes plain where Venema’s sympathies lie, namely, with the conditional-covenant view. In his concluding observations Venema would have the reader believe that Bavinck was a conditional-covenant theologian (cf. pp. 113-4). Not that this is easy. True, Bavinck does use the word “conditional” as applied to man’s part in the covenant, but he carefully defines his use of the word, making plain he is not using it as a condition unto the covenant with its promises (per conditional-covenant theologians) but a condition within the covenant and a fruit of the very grace God’s covenant brings (as set forth in a quote below).
If ever there was a legitimate reason to take note of Bavinck’s carefully ‘nuanced’ language, one might think it would be here. But it is ignored.
For a defense of Bavinck’s unconditional covenant view we refer the interested reader to Prof. D. J. Engelsma’s book Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition, chapter 11 (an RFPA publication).
At least Venema makes plain that Bavinck is not to be numbered with those who seek to separate election from the covenant, as if the two have little to do with each other. The article makes plain that Bavinck viewed the two as inseparably related (as a quote below will make plain).
Still, even here Venema appears to equivocate when he states in his concluding observations that Bavinck demurred “. . . from an exaggerated [!] emphasis upon the close connection, even identification, between election and covenant (presumed regeneration) . . . .” The distinct impression left by the statement is that Venema is saying that Bavinck viewed a “close connection” between election and covenant as an “exaggerated connection” (leading inevitably to a presumed-regeneration doctrine).
What Venema grants in the article with the one hand, he seems to try to take away with the other.
If that is what Venema is saying in the above quote (and that is the impression left), he could not be more mistaken. No one can credibly argue that for Bavinck there was not the closest connection between election and covenant. We state this because this is the direction we fear the promoters of Bavinck are going these days—so adverse to ‘election theology’ are so many Reformed theologians that Bavinck is not allowed to be ‘Bavinck’ even on this doctrine so clearly set forth in his Reformed Dogmatics.
To be sure, as far as Bavinck was concerned, a connection between the two, election and covenant, but not too close a connection, lest Bavinck be identified with the perspective of . . . . .
Yes, of whom?
Bavinck in his Dogmatics (in the section “Covenant and Election”), having stated, “Thus in a marvelous way the doctrine of the covenant maintains God’s sovereignty in the entire work of salvation” (p. 228), goes on to write:
But the two [election and covenant of grace] do differ in that in election humans are strictly passive but in the covenant of grace they also play an active role. Election only and without qualification states who are elect and will infallibly obtain salvation; the covenant of grace describes the road by which these elect people will attain their destiny. The covenant of grace is the channel by which the stream of election flows toward eternity (Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 229).
To his credit Venema does point out,
According to Bavinck, we must recognize that God’s purpose of election is realized by means of the administration of the covenant, and that the purpose is inseparably joined to the covenantal means that God has appointed. Though not all who are placed under the administration of the covenant of grace are ultimately saved, God does grant his grace in the way of the covenant (p. 104).
And then Venema quotes Bavinck:
Faith is not a condition unto the covenant, but a condition within the covenant, the route to be followed in order to become partaker and to enjoy all the commodities of that covenant. Yet faith itself is already a fruit, a benefit of the covenant, a gift of God’s grace . . . (Saved By Grace, pp. 76-7).
A fair presentation. Sounds a lot like Hoeksema and the proper use of the word “condition” when applied to the covenant of grace.
But for all that, Venema cannot refrain from declaring that Bavinck, for all his language that ties election and covenant inseparably together, does not really teach the same thing as Hoeksema on this issue.
To those familiar with Hoeksema, it may sound as if they do. But, no, never the twain shall meet.
Knowing full well that in the current controversy swirling around the issue of election and covenant the name of Hoeksema looms large with his election emphasis over against a conditional-covenant view with its conditional promise, Venema seeks to drive a wedge between Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s covenant/election views.
Not that reference to Hoeksema looms so large in Venema’s article. Hoeksema’s name appears in a footnote.
But it is a most telling footnote!
In a paragraph in which he speaks of certain “. . . theologians [who], proceeding from the standpoint of election, maintained that [baptized] children should be assumed [!] to possess the fullness of God’s grace in Christ” (p. 100), Venema then goes on to say,
In its most rigorous form, theologians who virtually identified [emphasis ours—kk] the covenant with election sometimes expressed themselves in such a way as to suggest that the ground or reason for the baptism of such children is their assumed [!] election and regeneration.
And then Venema adds,
This tendency to proceed from the standpoint of election in the understanding of the administration of the covenant (identifying [!] covenant with election) was associated with the theological views and formulations of Abraham Kuyper, Bavinck’s contemporary and predecessor as professor of dogmatics of the Free University of Amsterdam, and those who were influenced by him (pp. 100-1).
And it is to this paragraph Venema adds a footnote in which is found reference to the PRC and Hoeksema.
In North American Reformed church history, this approach with its tendency to view the covenant strictly [!] in terms of the doctrine of election, is represented by the Protestant Reformed churches. For a theological defense of this approach, see Herman Hoeksema . . . (p. 101).
As they say, context is everything. Hoeksema is identified with those who “virtually identified” the covenant with election.
And as such he is placed in the category of Kuyper and Kuyper’s disreputable, much maligned, covenant view (as assessed by present-day Reformed theologians).
But Bavinck is not.
And herein lies our conundrum: why not?
Our point here is not that Hoeksema is charged once again with equating the covenant with election (a canard that is going to persist until the last syllable of recorded time, it seems), but our point is this: while Hoeksema’s view is virtually identified with that of Kuyper, Bavinck and his view escapes this tainted association.
And how exactly is this managed?
Venema shows how: Hoeksema is to be cast into the bed of those holding a presumptive regeneration view, but not Bavinck.
Why not Bavinck?
Because, as Venema states:
Second, Bavinck argues against the tendency of some…to suggest that the ground for the baptism of such children is their “presumed regeneration” . . . . And third, Bavinck mildly criticizes Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis upon the “assumed regeneration” of such children (pp. 106-7).
There you have it. Because Bavinck criticizes Kuyper’s presumed-regeneration view (though mildly at that), he is considered to have adequately distanced himself from Kuyper’s view and is to be numbered with the ‘nuanced’ and not with the extremists.
But not Hoeksema—even though his criticism of Kuyper’s view is basically the same as Bavinck’s, and in far stronger language than Bavinck’s. Read his Believers and Their Seed.
No matter, Hoeksema is not accorded the same courtesy as Bavinck. He is not to be permitted to distance himself from Kuyper and Kuyper’s admittedly errant baptismal view.
When Bavinck says, “I do not share Kuyper’s covenant view,” and offers ‘mild’ criticism of it, he is taken at his word. “Hear ye! Hear ye! Let all understand there is a great chasm between Bavinck and Kuyper’s covenantal view.” Every effort is put forth to justify his claim.
We must not be so careless as to put Bavinck in the same boat as his mentor Kuyper. My no!
But when Hoeksema protests and says forcefully, “I do not share Kuyper’s covenantal view of presupposed regeneration,” and demonstrates why not, he is not to be taken at his word. His protest is disallowed.
And so the question: why?
Why is it these days that Reformed men make such a concerted effort to give Bavinck and his covenant view the best reading they can, doing all they can to ‘save’ Bavinck from harsh assessment and to distinguish his view from Kuyper’s? But, when it comes to Hoeksema, no such courtesy or recognition of the differences is allowed.
We realize what their response will be; it is because Bavinck and Hoeksema have such different covenant views (at least to the ‘nuanced’).
But the reality is, no honest reading of Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s covenantal views, so strikingly similar in so many ways, can justify this treatment.
Either both are essentially Kuyperian, or neither is.
But such a pronouncement has become the shibboleth of our day.
We are convinced this concerted effort to establish significant differences between Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s covenantal views does not have to do primarily with an attraction to Bavinck’s covenant view, or Hoeksema’s view would have more to commend itself to them.
No, something else is afoot here, something subtle.
What it is that, we are convinced, is really behind this concerted effort to put as much distance as possible between Bavinck and Hoeksema when it comes to God’s covenant, keeping Bavinck unblemished and casting Hoeksema Kuyper’s way, we will deal with in our next article.
Does it have to do with common-grace, you ask? You had better believe it does, even though Kuyper is the father of the inflated common-grace theory that rules Reformed and Presbyterian thinking today.
As we stated, something subtle is going on.
And, admittedly, for us there are nuances to that word ‘subtle’ that are not complimentary.