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November 25, 1949

Dear Reverend Ophoff:

Although not always agreeing, as to method and content, with that which has been written recently in the Standard Bearer, yet I have been following it with interest. Now, it is not my purpose today to write to you about these things in general because I realize too well the truth of the words of Elihu, “I am young, and ye are very old; wherefore I was afraid, and durst not shew you mine opinion. I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.” And therefore professor, I rather place myself in that wellknown and beloved chair of the student in order to be enlightened further regarding some things that are not plain to me.

My first difficulty has to do with your evaluation of the controversy in the Netherlands. Oh, I knew your evaluation of the “Liberated” position is plain to all of us, but what about the “Synodical”? Perhaps a quotations will serve to bring out my difficulties.

For example I read in your protest to the Consistory of First Church found on p. 51 of the Acts of Synod 1949: “The truth of this statement is borne out first by the fact of the present secession of the liberated churches in the Netherlands. The deep, underlying reason of the Leaders of the secession allowing themselves to be deposed was their unwillingness to subscribe to our doctrine to the effect that the promise of the gospel is only unto the elect. And their followers broke off their ecclesiastical relation with the Synodicals for the same reason. This is the deep meaning of the present secession in the Netherlands.” (I underscore, J.H.)

This same thought seems to be repeated in the Standard Bearer of November 15, p. 87, 2nd column, 5th paragraph: “As we know, by synodical action in the communion of ‘gereformeerde’ churches in the Netherlands, that promises-of-God-given-only-to-the-elect theology was made binding. Every office-bearer was asked to express his agreement with it. Dr. Schilder and his brethren in the service—professors, ministers, elders, and deacons—refused. Action was taken against them, and they were deposed in their office.”

It seems to me this same thing can be read again in the Standard Bearer for Nov. 1, p. 64, col. 2, paragraph 2: “But the facts are well known. The doctrine repudiated, the Thing’ that the professor actually knows not, is the teaching that the promises of God are given to the elect only. And the Thing’ returned to is the teaching, the view, that the promises of God are given to elect and non-elect (born in the historical line of the covenant) alike—the Heynsian view, the theology of the Liberated today. So the professor must not tell us that he knows not that ‘thing’. He and his brethren do know that ‘thing’ indeed. They do have a theology of their own. It is that ‘thing’, that teaching, that the promises of God are given to elect and non-elect alike. It is not ours; it is not the Synodical’s; it is theirs. . .”

Now if this were all that you had written on the above subject I could simply put the question this way, “Is your position that the ‘Synodicals’, in the recent controversy in the Netherlands, were fighting for the pure truth of God’s Word?” Would you also subscribe to their position in that struggle?

But, in view of what you write further in the last mentioned quotation, “(yet it is also the Synodical’s. I think now of their doctrine of the well-meaning offer of salvation unto all)”, (1) the question must now assume a slightly different form. Is it your position that the “Synodicals” were fighting essentially for the pure truth of God’s Word? Was their adoption of the theory of a well meaning offer of salvation then something only incidental to and really opposed to their essential struggle? Except for the theory of common grace and the well meaning offer of the gospel, would you subscribe to the “Synodical” position? Perhaps I am reading more into the above quotation than is really there. Therefore I come to you with these questions and with those following seeking light. And then I ask further: (2) How do you explain the fact that the “Synodicals” speak of and approve such a doctrine as those of common grace and the well meaning offer of the gospel, while the “Vrijgemaakten” repudiate these? Must this be explained from the side of the “Synodicals” as a failure to see the logical outcome of their position, as a drawing of improper conclusions from a proper premise? Must the position of the “Vrijgemaakten” on these theories be explained perhaps from their opposition to everything “Synodical”? Is their position also a failure to see the logical outcome of their own position and a drawing of sound conclusions from an unsound and untrue premise? In view of this how is it to be explained that the “Vrijgemaakten”’ changed their view on common grace and the well meaning offer in recent years?

I ask you these questions because as you know although I attempt to read the Holland, yet it is difficult for me, I read it slowly and laboriously and therefore cannot give the careful attention to these matters that you can. Now with regard to the other matter about which I have some questions and desire some information, allow me to begin by saying that I am fully in agreement with what you write, “that the promises of God are given only to the elect is, according to our firmest conviction, the plain teaching of our three Forms of Unity.” When you say elsewhere that this truth is written in our hearts I also agree fully. But frankly, I have a little difficulty in understanding this matter of written and unwritten creeds about which you were writing when the above quotation came from your pen. First on p. 62, of the Standard Bearer of Nov. 1, 3rd paragraph, 2nd column, I read, “This decision was written in the official minutes of our three original consistories.” By this I understand that in protesting the three points our churches through their three original consistories officially adopted (be it in a negative form) “the covenant-theology of Rev. Hoeksema”, and that this was a written creed. But then I read again, top of p. 63, “As yet no one. . . .has appeared on our Synod with a written statement to the effect that the promises of God are given only unto the elect, and overtured Synod to adopt that written credal declaration. . . . Nor is this necessary I believe. . . .” Now is this second not contradictory to the first? (3) Is our covenant theology something additional to the Three Forms of Unity? Or do I correctly reproduce your thought when I state that which has always been and still is my own personal position, (4) “That only Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity are binding in our churches and nothing more. But that we are so convinced that the Three Forms teach that the promises of God are given only to the elect that we believe they can be interpreted in no other way. (Promises here to be understood as not only the announcement of the promises but the actual participation in the content of the promises.) And therefore we exactly have nothing else that is binding, neither do we need anything further until it becomes evident that the Three Forms are capable of being interpreted in another, unscrip- tural manner. If this latter (which I do not believe possible) were ever done then we would need and obtain an additional creed interpreting officially the parts in our Three Forms not plain. I ask again, “Do I reproduce your thought here correctly?” Or is your position this, “That we have the Three Forms plus something additional?”

(5) If I present your thought correctly above and I believe I do, then I wonder what is meant by the statement found on p. 62, the bottom of the 2nd column, “Further the theology in question has been spread, so to speak over the pages of the mass of literature produced by Rev. Hoeksema through the years; and most of it has been officially adopted by our Synods for dis-^ tribution.” Now, I take it for granted, that we all agree with what Rev. Hoeksema has written in the past at least in all the essential points. Nor is this my difficulty in understanding your point here. But this statement is written in connection with the point that we have a written, binding, covenant-theology. What does “officially adopted by our Synods for distribution” mean? Does this mean that when our Synod decides to publish or to print, or to underwrite the publishing of a work of Rev. Hoeksema (or any other man) the entire content of such a publication becomes Church Doctrine, Creed and therefore binding in all our churches? If this were actually the implication of “adopted for distribution” then I for one would never favor such distribution—not because I do not agree with what Rev. Hoeksema or some other man may have written or does write, but because the whole thing is too dangerous and smacks too much of theological-strait-jacket-ism. Neither do I believe that you mean this. But you see, professor, I don’t know what you mean here. Could you explain for me what the implication of “officially adopted by our Synod for distribution” really is?

Because I believe some of these questions to be vital and all to be interesting not only to me but to all our people, I would appreciate your placing this letter together with its answer in the Standard Bearer.

As I look over this letter it seems to me that I have almost exceeded the bonds of courtesy as far as the length of this letter is concerned. It may also be that I have forgotten here and there to be like Elihu but if I have I can only plead my impetuosity which you know so well and which I hope you will forgive.

Your brother in Christ,

James Howerzyl

Reply

Dear Brother:

(1) If I understand what I have read of the Synodicals, their official doctrine contains also the following two propositions: a) The promises of God are given only to the elect, b) The promises of God are unconditional. These doctrines I believe to be soundly scriptural, so that, in championing these doctrines, the synodicals champion the truth.

Now you ask, “Is it your position that the “Synodicals” were fighting essentially for the truth of God’s Word.” I have difficulty here with that word “essentially”, as an element in your sentence. What you mean to be asking here I believe is whether I subscribe all that the synodicals teach, pronounce Scriptural and sound their whole official theology as to every one of its tenets. To the question so put my answer is: No. I do not. But I believe that the doctrine contained in the two above-cited propositions is, as was stated, sound doctrine.

To begin with, I do not subscribe the following doctrine of the sacrament of baptism of theirs. It is this: Baptism to be valid and real must seal regeneration in every infant presented for baptism. But to my mind this is an impossible teaching in the light of the Scriptures. Were it true, it would mean that the sacrament of baptism, as administered to the non-elect infant, is devoid of reality, is a pretense, a vain show. But, certainly, baptism is never that. It is real also when administered to the non-elect infant (or adult). And the reason is simple. Baptism is a sign and a seal of the promises of God unto the elect and to the elect only, to the believers, the penitent, the contrite of heart. The water of baptism also as sprinkled upon the non-elect, proclaims salvation to the believers and to them only. And this water, or rather the promises of God imposed upon that water, does not cease to utter that joyful sound when and because it is sprinkled upon the non-elect. Thus baptism is always valid, real, not alone because it seals, always seals, the promises of God unto the elect, but for still another reason. It declares to the unbelievers, the despisers of the Christ and His benefits of which baptism is a sign, that they are damned in their unbelief.

Now the synodicals do not admit, of course, that their view of baptism reduces this sacrament to a mere appearance as often as it is administered to the nonelect. They imagine to be avoiding this difficulty by their so-called doctrine of pre-supposed regeneration. They simply suppose that every child presented for baptism is an elect and regenerated. But their difficulty remains. The difficulty can be removed only by baptizing on the ground that the child is actually regenerated. But, of course, the Synodicals affirm no such thing, knowing as they do that all are not Israel who are of Israel. So the fact is that their view of baptism necessarily involves them in the teaching of two kinds of baptism: a real and an unreal. And of this they are constantly being reminded by the Liberated.

Second, needless to say, I do not subscribe that wellmeaning-offer-of-salvation-unto-all doctrine of the Synodicals.

Thirdly, needless also to say is that I do not subscribe their common grace theory, which is that of the late Dr. A. Kuyper Sr.

(2) Your question which I indicated by the number (2) is a difficult one. I really can’t answer it, and this for the simple reason that I cannot look into the heart of man and know his thoughts and motives. God alone knows the heart. All I can go by is what man does and speaks and writes. It’s hard enough for me to know what men mean by their words, their spoken and written words. When I believe that I have succeeded therein, they write in to tell me that I don’t even know the A, B, C, of their theology. So by all means, let me refrain from trying to peer into men’s souls to know their unexpressed thoughts.

You say that the “vrijgemaakten” repudiate these, namely, the doctrines of common grace and of the well- meaning offer. I know that Dr. Schilder repudiates the doctrine of common grace. But can this be said of all the Liberated or even of the majority of them? I don’t know.

(3) Now your question indicated by (3). Allow me to restate your question thus: Is the doctrine that the promises of God are given only to the elect and therefore unconditional, something additional to the Three Forms? Reply. No. That doctrine is the very teaching of these Forms. So we officially declared when at the beginning of our career as Protestant Reformed Churches we officially rejected the Three Points including the Heynsian tenet to the effect that the promises of God are given to all.

(4) That is correct. Only Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity are binding in our midst and nothing more. Certainly, we do not have the Three Forms plus something else.

(5) Yes, I did speak of our officially binding covenant-theology. By the expression “covenant-theology” I had reference only to the doctrine that the promises of God are given unto to the elect. For reasons cited above, this doctrine is officially binding even apart from Rev. Hoeksema’s writing adopted for distribution.

And now those writings of Rev. Hoeksema. Synod officially adopted them for distribution. Thereby Synod officially subscribed the doctrine contained in them. Synod certainly did not declare by that act of adoption the following: Whether the doctrine set forth in these writings are truth or lie we know not; but despite this ignorance on our part, we nevertheless adopt them for distribution. No other stand is possible but the stand that in adopting the writings in question for distribution, Synod officially sanctioned the doctrine contained in them. I will answer your remaining questions in the next issue of our paper.          

G. M. Ophoff