Previous article in this series: April 1, 2013, p. 292.
As stated in our recent SB editorials it has become plain that at present there is a concerted effort by various Doctors of Reformed Theology to put as much distance as possible between H. Bavinck’s covenantal view and that of H. Hoeksema. A perusal of recent issues of the Mid-America Journal of Theology (MJT) going back to volume 19 (2008) makes this rather clear, as we have demonstrated.
From the articles dealt with, it becomes plain that the intention of the writers is not simply to distinguish between Bavinck and Hoeksema where they differ (that would be one thing), but to cast Bavinck’s covenantal view in the best of lights and Hoeksema’s in the worst, labeling it as “extreme” and given to “scholastic tendencies,” categorizing Hoeksema in this too as one who promotes a “hyper-Calvinistic” view of things.
What we find especially intriguing is how these theologians have set about to accomplish this. As pointed out in our last article, they are doing so by identifying Hoeksema’s covenantal view with that of Abraham Kuyper and his presupposed-regeneration view in every way possible, while exonerating Bavinck from such guilt by association.
The question is why? Why are these Doctors of Divinity at such pains to distinguish between Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s covenantal views, while persisting in identifying Hoeksema’s with Kuyper’s?
One does not have to look so far down the road for the answer.
Why Hoeksema with Kuyper, rather than Hoeksema with Bavinck? Because, in the first place, besides wanting nothing to do with Hoeksema’s unconditional covenant view, those writing in the MJT want to justify their rejection of it as an extreme view that poses a danger to spiritual life in the church and to the liveliness of the gospel.
The point is, this severe criticism of Hoeksema’s covenant view is much easier to justify if they can identify Hoeksema with Kuyper, because it is plain to all that Kuyper’s view, with its presupposed-regeneration basis for baptizing infants, is grievously flawed. And if Hoeksema’s view is identified with the view of Kuyper, his must be seriously flawed too, and Reformed theologians’ rejection of it is obviously justified.
But if Hoeksema’s view were to be more closely identified with that of Bavinck, then simply dismissing it without careful reconsideration would be a more difficult task. Suddenly, after all these years of being dismissed as a ‘sectarian’ idea developed by a few ‘hyper’ theologians scholastic in all their rationalistic thinking (Have I missed any of the pejorative adjectives thrown our way over the years? I probably have. One loses track after awhile.) Hoeksema and his disciples’ covenant perspective must be given some credibility in present covenantal discussion. Perhaps it is not so sectarian, hyper, and novel after all—some small tributary that wandered off the main Jordan of covenantal theology into some insignificant Wadi disappearing into the Wilderness of Zin—rather than being identified with the mainline covenantal theological flow. Unless one wants to put Bavinck, the balanced, clear-thinking Bavinck, the Bavinck who towards the end of his career became a great champion of common grace, into that category as well.
Present-day Reformed theologians are loath to do that. Bavinck’s present popular, standard of orthodoxy, intellectual status is too great to be treated that way.
Such is the reason, in part, for seeking to drive a wedge between the covenantal views of these two Hermans. How else can you embrace the one without embracing the other?
In addition, only in this way, by disconnecting Bavinck from Hoeksema with his clear unconditional covenant convictions, can those committed to the conditional covenant view have any hope of claiming that Bavinck was one of their own, turning him into a theologian who is supposedly conditional by conviction. No small feat, considering the contours of the whole body of Bavinck’s Dogmatics and his magisterial emphasis upon the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation from beginning to end, to say nothing of his emphasis upon the inseparable relationship between election and covenant in God’s saving purpose and will.
Say what you will, there is nothing Schilderian (Schilder being the conditional-covenant theologian so much in vogue these days in Reformed circles, the theologian so averse to bringing election to bear on the truth of God’s covenant of grace) about Bavinck’s covenant view. That much should be plain.
Judging from recent MJTs, it appears some will not have it so.
It comes down to this, to have Bavinck line up with Hoeksema in the conditional/unconditional controversy might prove too formidable a tandem for those prone to dismiss Hoeksema’s covenant view as being “hyper” and “outside the camp.”
Thus the present resolve to disconnect the two.
But that, we are convinced, is not yet the whole story.
As we stated at the conclusion of our previous article (April 1), it becomes painfully obvious that this whole matter of identifying Hoeksema’s covenant view with that of Kuyper has everything to do with common grace, in particular the version of it Kuyper set loose in the ecclesiastical world—a theory, by the way, that heavily influenced Herman Bavinck and which, towards the end of his career, became the dominant theme of his writings and shook his scriptural orthodoxy.
At first glance it might strike some as rather curious that Doctors of Divinity should be casting Hoeksema, the relentless foe of common grace, into bed with Kuyper, the champion of common grace.
There is, however, a method to this seeming madness.
The key is this: something has to account for the swift theological and moral decline of the Reformed church world and its members, first in the Netherlands in the first half of the last century and then in North America in the last half of the century just past. Because happen it did, and with a rapidity that astounds. This was especially true of the Free University of Amsterdam, founded by Kuyper in the late 1800s, and then also of the GKN, the denomination where both Kuyper and Bavinck held their membership.
In his selected writings, Dr. William Young puts it this way, “How could apostasy sweep in like a flood [!] in the university founded by Abraham Kuyper on Christian and specifically, though modified, Calvinistic principles?” (Reformed Thought, p. 305). And he is talking about what came to evidence soon after the deaths of Kuyper and of Bavinck in 1920.
I will tell you at the feet of what doctrine the Doctors of Divinity writing in the MJT will not lay any of the guilt or acknowledge as the cause of the swift demise of theological and practical orthodoxy, first of all in the Free University, and with it the GKN, and in time in the CRC, and a host of other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations as well. Not at the feet of Abraham Kuyper’s theory of common grace (and adopted by Bavinck)! Nor at the door of its inflated view adopted by the CRC in 1924! In that the theologians mentioned in our previous two articles are of one mind. The doctrine of common grace is sacrosanct, untouchable.
On this matter Herman Hoeksema and the PRC cannot be right.
But that raises the question: If the deadening of, the loss of spiritual immunity against the virus of error in both doctrine and walk in the Reformed and Presbyterian church world of the past century is not to be laid at the door of common grace, then at the door of what doctrine propagated by Abraham Kuyper and adopted by his disciples is it to be laid?
What else but his scholastic doctrine of the covenant with its presumptive-regeneration emphasis, labeled by Dr. Young in his selected writings as “hyper-covenantism”!
Young points us in that direction in a chapter in his aforementioned book entitled Modern Relativism and the Authority of Scripture.
In this chapter Young makes critical reference to a certain Dr. Kuitert, who taught Ethics in the mid-1900s in the Free University and who, in the name of biblical Christianity, began to justify moral relativism, a Christianity that changes its moral standards and what it approves along with the culture in which it finds itself, in order to be “relevant” to those to whom it is called to minister.
How did a certain Rob Bell just come out and phrase it?
Before we quote Young, we cannot refrain from noting that in this quote we find reference to none other than Dr. C. Van Til! Yes, the same Van Til of philosophical/theological reputation, a man whose name appears often in earlier volumes of the SB, a professor of status in Machen’s Westminster Seminary, whose instruction influenced generations of Reformed and Presbyterian ministers, a man who reacted strongly against Hoeksema’s “rationalistic theology,” subjecting it to strong criticism, renowned for his unwavering commitment to common grace and the free offer, a man who reveled in “paradoxes” to keep his Calvinism and its ‘apparent contradictions’ intact. Dr. Van Til, Christian philosopher asserting that God hath done all things in paradox, in stated contrast to the “rationalistic” approach of logic-bound, scholastic Hoeksema, which paradoxes are so necessary (supposedly) if we are to defend and maintain the sovereign freedom of God!
Really, the same contention made by the writers of the MJT as demonstrated in our previous articles.
Which brings us to the quote.
Immediately following his question of how apostasy came to sweep in like a flood so quickly into Kuyper’s university and denomination following that great man’s death, so that in few short decades it approved of professors of Kuitert’s ilk on its faculty, Young states:
I find a clue to an answer in Dr. Van Til’s analysis of Kuitert’s earlier hermeneutical work . . . . My suggestion is that Kuitert’s extreme relativism . . . is rooted in what I have elsewhere diagnosed and termed “Hyper-Covenantism” [!], an exaggeration of Reformed covenant theology that has developed in various forms in the circles influenced by the work of that theologian of genius, Abraham Kuyper. . . . The case of Kuitert should stand as a solemn example of how swiftly radical apostasy can follow upon seemingly minor deviations from the fine points of sound doctrine (Reformed Thought, 305-6).
How we like that last statement.
Be that as it may, take note of the reference to “Hyper-Covenantism.’” And call to mind that into that category has been placed not only Kuyper and Kuitert, with their covenant view, but also Hoeksema. Not that Young would have charged either Kuyper or Hoeksema with teaching what Kuitert did. He esteems at least Kuyper too highly for that. But his point is, the seeds of Kuitert’s perspective were inherent in his Kuyperian “Hyper-Covenant” view. The old adage, “Principles work through.” The proof for this is those most grievous errors that were soon promoted in Kuyper’s university and in the deadness that overcame the GKN in a few short decades, little more than one generation’s time.
So, Young contends that in large measure it is at the feet of Kuyper’s doctrine of the covenant, with its extreme, hyper elements, that the blame for the apostasy of the Reformed church world in the Netherlands and of its adherents in North America must be laid.
From the pen of writers in the MJT it becomes plain that this is their contention as well. Kuyper’s “scholastic” covenant view, with its “ontological” overtones, explains to a large measure the departure of Reformed denominations from the lively and orthodox biblical faith.
And Hoeksema’s covenantal view is to be identified with Kuyper’s, justifying why Reformed theologians ought to have nothing to do with that man and his doctrines.
And now the question we would put to the writers in the MJT and those in agreement with them: is this all true? Can their thesis be sustained? Which thesis at its heart is to answer the question, what has gone wrong in the Reformed and Presbyterian church world of the last century and a half and continues to vitiate its orthodoxy and commitment to godliness to this present day?
Surely, whatever might be the disagreements between ourselves as Reformed, confessionally-based believers, on this we do not disagree, something or things have horribly attacked the Calvinistic and Reformed church world’s spiritual immunity to fight off doctrinal error and worldly mindedness.
And then the question, whose “deviations from the fine points of sound doctrine” are to be held accountable?
In other words, what is at stake in our doctrinal disagreements with the writers in the MJT and with their conclusions is not merely an academic exercise.
The great issue is not who can say they are right, and can point the finger at the other fellows and say “Aha, you were wrong, just as we said. And our man was right!” When the church as the body of Christ is in crisis and generations are being cut off? That ego trip does no one any good.
This whole ongoing discussion has to do with a proper diagnosis of the unspiritual viruses of error that have brought Reformed Protestantism to its present lamentable spiritual condition, leaving denominations wide open to every error in doctrine and temptation in walk.
This is our concern.
What is becoming plain is that much of the burden of guilt is being laid at the doorstep of Abraham Kuyper—but not at the feet of his common grace teaching. Oh no! But at that of his covenantal view. And then Hoeksema’s with him.
This we contest.
Not that Kuyper’s covenantal view of presupposed regeneration was not a contributing factor. One can understand how it would be. Presupposed regeneration carries an immunity-destroying germ within itself, the idea of a dormant regeneration in the elect, which then justifies allowing baptized members to remain within the church though they show precious little spiritual life or interests. Because, after all, they must be viewed as elect, regenerated Christians, in spite of all their persisting unspirituality. And deadness results. We concur.
But this we contest first of all. Is Hoeksema’s view to be identified with this? His critics are deaf to our protests. All we say now is, if that charge is true, then we submit to the critics that the PRC ought to be in a state similar to the GKN and others injected with Kuyper’s error. The PRC ought to be overrun with doctrinal error, far down the road of apostasy, its members living in disregard for the commandants of God, beginning on the Lord’s Day and continuing right on through their family and personal lives during the ensuing week.
All we can say is, one would have a hard time validating that charge, in spite of all our personal weaknesses and struggle with sin.
So, perhaps Hoeksema’s covenant view is not to be identified with the worst elements of Kuyper’s view after all? Maybe it is more closely to be identified with Bavinck’s view? The proof is in the pudding, as they say. And we leave it there.
And this we also contest: that the heaviest burden of blame is to be laid on Kuyper’s covenant view. A contributing factor? Without a doubt. But the preponderance of the guilt? And Kuyper’s common grace theory is to be exonerated of all blame (and Bavinck’s with Kuyper’s)?
The pages of church history over the past century bear that out? In the mother church of many of those writing in the MJT? Error after error in biblical interpretation, beginning with Genesis 1-3 (no Adam, no Eve, no mother promise then either?), and then the denials of the “scholastic” thinking of Calvin’s Calvinism and of the creeds—all justified in the name of what doctrine? Janssen, Daane, Boer, Dekker, H. Van Til, et al., and what doctrine they used to justify their newfound positions means nothing? Is to be dismissed? And what justifies our being more and more immersed in the culture of this present, increasingly anti-Christian world?
All we can say is that there is nothing disputable about these men’s justification of their anti-creedal, unbiblical teachings. They flat out justified their unReformed views in the name of common grace and consistency with it. And that is to be ignored?
We would suggest in all earnestness to the Doctors of Divinity who have been so critical of Hoeksema and his views that perhaps the time has come to reexamine their diagnosis of what has gone wrong in the body of the Reformed and Presbyterian church world, with its immunity to error so severely suppressed. Perhaps Hoeksema and his colleagues were on to something after all?
Indeed, Dr. Young’s statement is bedrock truth, “…how swiftly radical apostasy can follow upon seemingly minor deviations from the fine points of sound doctrine.”
The question is, what are those deviations?
Next time we turn to an article in the MJT 22, 2011 by Dr. J.M. Beach dealing with Calvin, grace, and the free offer.