Further Debate on Children of the Covenant

Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A recent issue of Christian Renewal contained a second response of Rev. Jelle Tuininga to my recent articles concerning children in the covenant, which I believe brings out the differences between us and the Liberated Churches better than I alone can describe it. Accordingly, I here present both his letter and my answer.

The Rev. Woudenberg has favored me with a gracious response, and I would like one more opportunity to reply to him. 

1.History: Just what happened between Schilder and Hoeksema, and what caused what has been interpreted differently. Without doubt, at first, Schilder was more optimistic about cooperation with the Protestant Reformed than later when the facts became more plain to him. In this connection Schilder writes about his “considerable amazement” that Hoeksema would draw up a “Declaration” which would be binding on all the churches. Once Schilder saw the state of affairs, he wrote “The Stocking is Finished.” 

2.About “apocryphal anecdotes,” I was relying on my memory of things I read years ago, as a student. I read the Standard Bearer fairly regularly, and also read a book by Hoeksema on the history of the PRs. Somewhere along the line I read that statement attributed to Hoeksema. Perhaps someone else wrote that Hoeksema had said it. In any case I didn’t just suck it out of my thumb. Whether or not he actually said it, it would be completely consistent with the PR view on infant baptism. And unless my memory completely escapes me, I was certain I had read that the Form for Baptism of Infants was used by the PRs with some significant changes from the one used in the CRC. If I am mistaken about that, I will gladly admit it. (I still hope to check this out in due time.) 

3.It is sad that PR brothers construe every mention of “condition” as Arminian. Schilder writes: “For I know what the Arminian position is, and I also know that one can set the entire Declaration aside without falling into Arminianism. On the contrary, in order to hang on to sound, fundamental Reformed ideas, we affirm the promise of God is not prediction and is not realized without involving our responsibility. And faith is never a condition in the Arminian sense, any more than the condition of which the preface to the Statenvertaling speaks is an Arminian notion.” The language of the Statenvertaling, says Schilder, “have not one drop of Arminian blood in their veins.” A.C. DeJong talks about the “unreal dilemma” of either conditional or unconditional. He says we need both terms, and I believe he is right. God alone establishes the covenant, but in the outworking of the covenant man’s whole-soul belief-ful commitment is necessary. In that sense it is conditional. “In all covenants there are contained two parts.” Feenstra, in talking about children who later manifest themselves as unbelievers, says, “In any case, we may not say that the baptism which they received appears to have been worthless. From God’s side, this baptism, administered according to His Word, was earnestly meant as a sealing of His grace. And it renders even more grave the guilt of those who reject such great grace in indifference.” 

Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism are two horns of a dilemma and neither one is right. Baptism will either be a blessing or a

curse. Just as the same water of the flood drowned the world and saved Noah, so baptism either “drowns” us or saves us (I Pet. 3: 20, 21). But it is valid for every single child of believing parents that comes to the baptismal font. It will come to count against you or it will give you great blessing. It is never neutral. “And this is just saying that the comfort and confidence of God’s covenant mercy may never be severed from covenant keeping” (Murray, Christian Baptism). Baptism is never an “announcement” that God will save all his elect, but in baptism God compels us to believe (Holwerda). The PRs don’t really want to speak of covenant breaking, but passages such as Luke 12:47-48, Rom. 6:9ff, I Cor. 10:1-5, Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26-30, 12:16-17 cannot be understood apart from covenant breaking. Says Murray: “Without question the blessing of the covenant and the relation which the covenant entails cannot be enjoyed or maintained apart from the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of the beneficiaries.” 

The continued enjoyment of this grace and of the relation established are meaningless. Grace bestowed implies a subject and reception on the part of that subject.

Woudenberg wants to uphold the principle of non-contradiction, and says that I violate logical consistency. Well, first of all, our logic is not the criterion for what the Bible says. Our logic must be subservient to God’s Word. But how does Woudenberg escape the same logical inconsistency with these statements: “to assure us by this divine pledge that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are outwardly washed with water” (LD 27, A. 73); “We thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins” (prayer with baptism). How is this logically consistent with the fact that not all baptized children are saved? What I’m saying is that Woudenberg can no more escape what he calls “contradiction” on the part of God than I can.

Another question for Wouden-berg: if baptism is only valid for the elect children, and since we don’t know who is elect, does that not invalidate every baptism? Where is the certainty of God’s promises? All we can say is: I hope it is for you, I trust it is, but I don’t know for sure. What kind of comfort is that? Anthony Hoekema says: “If one thinks of the covenant of grace as established only with the elect, the character of the covenant of grace is totally changed, for then there can be no possibility of covenant breaking. Further, the covenant of grace is then deprived of its objectivity, since one cannot know whether one’s children are covenant members or not.”

Finally, a helpful quote from Kline from, His Oath Consigned: “When covenant is no longer identified with election and guaranteed blessing, and especially when the baptismal sign of incorporation into the covenant is understood as pointing without prejudice to a judgment ordeal with the potential of both curse and blessing, certain questions that have long ensnarled the polemics of infant baptism are eliminated from consideration as no longer relevant. Within the framework of the approach to covenant and baptism being developed here, the practice of infant baptism would clearly have no presumption that the children of believers are Christians by birth. No theory of presumptive regeneration as the basis for the administration of baptism of infants could be reared on the foundation of law covenant. Neither, on our approach, would the baptism of infants of believers signify a divine promise that they were destined to secure the blessings of the covenant sooner or later. Hence, there would be no need to theorize how the baptism of such might serve as a means of conveying to them the grace supposedly sealed to them by the rite, much less to apologize for the numerous cases in which that grace never is conveyed.”

J. Tuininga

Lethbridge, Alberta

I appreciate Rev. Tuininga’s willingness to acknowledge that his understanding of Protestant Reformed history has been based more on rumor and vague memory than established fact, and even more his expressed intent to investigate these matters further; for I am sure, if he does, he will find that he has misconstrued our teachings even more.

To begin with, our Declaration of Principles was not, as he intimates, a confession-like statement “binding on all the churches,” but rather an honest effort to give an answer to those who were asking whether Prof. Holwerda was correct in his claim that we did not have a distinct covenant view of our own and would be willing to receive the Liberated view into our churches. It was not that all who would join our churches were required to consider this “binding on” their consciences, but we did want it known or “declared” for their sakes that we did indeed have our own covenant view, and could not accept the Liberated view as it implicitly countenanced a common grace view such as we had rejected at the origin of our denomination (which Rev. Tuininga confirms to be so when he argues that baptism is a “sealing of grace” to some who in the end prove not to be children of God — in contradiction, of course, to the Canons’ teaching that grace is irresistible).

And so is it when Tuininga writes, “PR brothers construe every mention of ‘condition’ as Arminian.” This too is not true, for both the Hebrew and Greek grammar of Scripture contain many conditional constructions, with which any responsible student of Scripture must deal. Our problem is with the way this is done, as comes out as Tuininga goes on.

To begin with, there is his simple identification of our covenant view with election, as though we maintain that children enter covenant with God simply because they are elect. We do not deny the importance of election — no Reformed believer should — but no one gains covenant fellowship with God simply by being elect. That comes, as Paul points out, only through faith, Galatians 3:7: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.” Such faith, of course, is given only to the elect (Eph. 2:8), and not to the reprobate (John 10:26); but it is also quite possible for an elect child of believers to be baptized and raised in the faith, and yet not come to conversion and faith, so as to know the reality of covenant fellowship with God, until later in life (Luke 15:17). Covenant life comes only through faith in Christ (Acts 4:12).

Because Tuininga does not see this, he ends up with his endless dilemmas, as with the Baptism Form when it says God “has forgiven us and our children all our sins.” There really is no reason to assume that Olevianus, Datheen, and vander Heyden, who worked in turn at compiling this form as finally adopted by Dort, had in mind with “our children” anything other than what Paul did when he identified covenant children as those who follow in the faith of Abraham. This is borne out by the fact that this statement is followed by a petition to God to apply this baptism personally to the children being baptized. The inner application of baptism is not something that can be presumed or taken for granted; God must bring it to pass when and in whom He wills. The external sign does not bring anyone automatically into the covenant, as Tuininga wants to think. It only points the child to the truth that salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:11), and only those who believe, as some do very early in life, come through this faith to know in personal experience what covenant life is really about.

So also regarding those “covenant-breaker” texts in which Tuininga finds so much contradiction, as a close look at the leading text on this (Gen. 17:14) makes clear. Breaking the covenant is not to be in it and then out of it — contradicting the Canons’ view of perseverance — but to fail to apply the covenant sign, and the truth sealed by it, to one’s children, so that the continuity of the covenant between the generations is broken and not carried on.

Still, most basic in all this is Tuininga’s attraction to irrationality — via Kierkegaard, Barth, and Berkouwer, etc., it would seem — and its rejection of logic. He is right when he says human “logic is not the criterion for what the Bible says” — after all, he is the one who identifies Aristotle’s logic with common grace, not we. That, however, does not eliminate the fact that there was logic in the Bible long before Aristotle ever turned a syllogism. It was there in God’s creation of language. Properly used, every word, phrase, sentence, and punctuation mark is a logical statement devised to express one thought, not several, and certainly not one that can be contradicted by another (while, was it not Satan who first suggested that a contradiction can be valid when he proposed to Eve, in Genesis 3:5, “ye shall be as gods”?). So Moses laid down the first principle of all logic in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie … hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” God’s Word has no place for contradiction. And John, when putting forth the first principle of New Testament theology, wrote, John 1:1, “In the beginning was the logos” — the Greek word from which the word “logic” derives, whose equivalent is not the English “word,” or the Dutch woord, but the Latin ratio, or what we might call reason (and not far removed from the wisdom of Proverbs 8:12,22-31). Logic was there in the beginning, at the creation of the world (John 1:3); and are we now to disallow it?

The result of doing so comes out in Tuininga’s repeated struggles with contradictions in the Reformed faith, so that he concludes that to be consistently Calvinistic is “hyper-,” while to be consistently Arminian is unacceptable as well, so that we must hold to them both in spite of their essential contradiction. But it will not work; and I wish Rev. Tuininga would see this. It was, after all, this kind of thinking that indeed allowed the Gereformeerde Kerken to maintain common grace and presupposed regeneration, but which also led them on to the denial of the inerrancy of Scripture and which brought about that terrible spiritual demise now taking place in their midst, along which path the CRC is quickly following. They no doubt continue to sprinkle their babies, presuming them, I suppose, to be regenerated and recipients of covenant promises, but at the same time the covenant is being broken through their failure to pass on to these children the true meaning of this sign, namely, the truth of salvation alone by grace and through faith in Christ.

We can only urge Rev. Tuininga, and those who follow him, to come back to the time-honored way of the fathers who, comparing Scripture with Scripture, sought out those non-contradictory truths from which our confessions were formed; by which alone those confessions can be maintained; and through which we, as believers of a common faith, work together to restore what has been so severely compromised. And for that purpose, may I suggest that some serious consideration be given to the work of Herman Hoeksema, who loved the Scriptures and spent his life seeking their harmony and preaching it to his congregation and who was not — as I can assure you, as one who knew him personally — the ogre so many seem driven to try to make him out to have been.