Recently we have been reading through a number of theological journals published by Mid-America Seminary the past few years (entitled Mid-American Journal of Theology—MAJT). They make for stimulating reading. What struck us was the number of articles over the past few years devoted to the doctrine of the covenant and related issues such as baptism, election, covenant of works, and common grace, among others.
Common grace, you say? Yes, common grace.
It comes in handy if you have a conditional covenant view and all the children of believers, even the carnal seed, are considered to be in the covenant of grace. They are in it by virtue of God’s common grace, however devoid they might be of God’s electing grace.
It is what we know as the Heynsian view of the covenant.
Interestingly enough, in one issue (Vol. 15, 2004) there is an article devoted to Heyns’ view of the covenant as critiqued and sharply criticized by Dr. S. Volbeda, a critique lifted from Volbeda’s unpublished class notes on Catechetics (circa 1930).
That the doctrine of the covenant should be on the foreground these days in a Reformed seminary’s theological journal is not surprising—not when you consider the recent publication of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics in English and its availability to the English reading public. And that taken in connection with the Federal Vision heresy that has recently forced to the fore the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace and, with it, the significance of baptizing infants. What does the highly esteemed Dr. Bavinck, covenantal theologian par excellence, have to say on this matter?
Accordingly, there are a number of articles in the MAJT of the past few years focusing on Bavinck and his views as well.
Of special interest to us would be the article “Covenant and Election in Bavinck” by Dr. C. Venema (MAJT 19, pp. 69-116, 2008).
We intend to make a few comments about that article in due course, D.V.
That said, the article that caught our eye was one written by Dr. J. Mark Beach, entitled “Calvin’s Treatment of the Offer of the Gospel and Divine Grace” (MAJT 22, pp. 55-76, 2011). This article is of interest to us, not only because reference is made in the article and its footnotes to H. Bavinck, H. Hoeksema, H. Hanko (apparently, amongst the Dutch, “Herman” was once a popular name), and D. J. Engelsma, but also because the subject matter itself, namely that of the Free (or Well-Meant) Offer, is of paramount importance these days.
In addition, it is of interest to us not only because of how many in Reformed, Presbyterian, and Reformed Baptist circles are committed to the Free Offer these days, enabling them to make common cause together in spite of significant differences in other areas, but also because the Free Offer, as is becoming clearer and clearer all the time, is what explains more than anything else the commitment of these churches to their conditional covenant view (and the theory of common grace along with it), their steadfast resistance to an unconditional covenant of grace, and their remarkable inability (refusal?) to read Bavinck aright when he lays out his unconditional covenant view, trying as best they can to modify his view.
Because such might mean having to take a second look at the Free (or Well-Meant) Offer, and that is the doctrine they will not part ways with today; no, not at any cost.
Seemingly, that has become “The Marrow of [Everyone’s] Divinity” these days.
The one doctrine above all others precious to them.
And article after article in the MAJT of recent years touching on the covenant and issues related to it simply serve to underscore that conclusion.
More on that later.
However, before we comment on Beach’s article on Calvin and the Free Offer, we want to say something about another article, one found in the Volume 17, 2006 issue of MAJT that is well worth reading, a treatise by Herman Witsius translated under the title: On the Efficacy and Utility of Infant Baptism in the Case of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under the Covenant.
The editors of the MAJT are to be commended for making this treatise available to a wider reading public. We could wish it were printed in pamphlet form and made available for general distribution.
Herman Witsius was a Dutch Reformed theologian of the second half of the seventeenth century (1636-1708) who, while not so well known in our circles, is well worth reading. Most of his published works are no longer buried in the Dutch. And the more one reads his works, the more one appreciates his integrity, clarity, and Reformed convictions. I have on my shelf his two-volume work entitled The Apostles’ Creed, providing good material for anyone who preaches regularly through the Heidelberg Catechism and is trying to stay fresh (for those interested, it is distributed by Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co.).
Witsius’ magnum opus was The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (two volumes in the English translation). While it is true that Witsius went in the direction of a conditional covenant like many (but not all) of his contemporaries, the value of this work is that Witsius ties God’s covenant in with election, convinced, as he demonstrates, that this is the clear teaching of Scripture.
As is clear from Witsius’ quotations of his contemporary Reformed theologians, he considered this the prevailing view of the orthodox of his day. It becomes clear that not the view that election governs God’s covenant with sinful men is the view that is novel to historic Reformed doctrine, but God’s covenant of grace severed from God’s eternal election is the novel teaching.
But our interest at this point is with Witsius’ treatise on The Efficacy and Utility of Baptism.
The reason for my interest as a minister of the PRC in this little treatise is that it makes clear what Witsius believed concerning how believers, in accordance with Scripture, should view their children, namely, as spiritual seed having spiritual life, and not as little heathens, as spiritually dead and waiting for regeneration in their later years.
And this, according to Witsius, was the prevailing view amongst the Reformed of his day.
In this treatise (which runs for some 65 pages in the MAJT) Witsius deals with various questions that arose in connection with the baptism of infants, which doctrine within the ranks of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians already in the 1600s was a source of much controversy, though all practiced infant baptism.
It was exactly disagreement between early Reformed theologians on this most practical of issues, the spiritual status of infants of believers, with its resulting confusion amongst believing parents about how they should view their little ones, that prompted Witsius to write this treatise.
While Witsius’ treatise is certainly polemical (taking issue with errant views), and his purpose ecumenical (to bring about a consensus among the Reformed in this area of controversy if at all possible), a case could be made that Witsius’ primary reason for writing this little treatise was practical and pastoral.
How a believer views his children from little on, as regenerated or unregenerate, as having the Holy Spirit or devoid of the Holy Spirit, is a matter of no little importance when it comes to the approach one takes in instructing one’s children. Witsius and his Reformed contemporaries were as well aware of this as we are.
But what becomes plain in the course of reading Witsius’ treatise is that one of the main issues that forced upon Witsius and his contemporaries consideration of how believers are to view their children (as having spiritual life from little on, even prior to their baptism, or devoid of such life) was the issue of the death of little ones.
For us, the death of infants may seem little more than a side issue for theological discussion, at most a secondary consideration.
In the days of Witsius it was not.
And for those with any pastoral heart, it could not be.
We of the twenty-first century seldom go to the cemetery with the body of an infant or little child. Modern medicine has made the death of little ones the exception, not the rule. In the days of Witsius, carrying bodies of little ones to the grave took place with sorrowful regularity. Records indicate that in those days nearly a third of those born died in infancy, and of those who lived into childhood another quarter never made it into their teens.
There is good reason why a doctrinal creed no less than the Canons of Dordt saw fit to devote one of its articles to this reality with its comforting, pastoral conclusion that “godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy” (Head I, Art. 17).
When the mothers of Israel with empty arms cry for their little ones, the Christ of the covenant, that same Shepherd who carries the lambs in his bosom, is compelled to respond, just as surely overpowered by their cries as when Jacob flung his arms about the knees of the Angel of Jehovah and would not let him go “until thou bless me.”
The Spirit of the Christ of the covenant compelled the theologians and preachers to write the pastoral words of reassurance found in Art. 17, Head I, of the Canons of Dordt. And by the phrase “[they] have no reason to doubt” the salvation of their children whom God calls out [!] of this life in their infancy, the Fathers did not mean simply that we as pastors are to tell the mothers of Israel that they are not to think about whether or not that little one whose body they cannot hold any longer is elect or reprobate, is safely in the arms of Jesus or perishing with the carnal. Just leave that to God. No! They are to have the assurance that these little ones are in the arms of Jesus, Almighty Shepherd of His sheep.
We are well aware that not all in our own circles are of the same persuasion on this matter. But that is another matter.
In the course of his little tract, Witsius lays out his own convictions on this question, which he was convinced was also the consensus of the Reformed of his day.
Towards the conclusion of his treatise, in the interest of “establishing peace between brothers” in this in-house baptismal controversy, Witsius draws up six points which, he was persuaded, “all we who are called orthodox are by the grace of God agreed upon . . . .” The fifth point reads:
(5) That the benefit of baptism is not only great as respects those who grow up to maturity but also in the case of those who die in infancy, to whom, though they are ignorant of the fact, it is the surest pledge of present grace and future glory (MAJT 17, p. 187).
In our judgment, Witsius’ pastoral heart was nothing less than scriptural.
If you have an argument with Witsius’ conclusion, I say, “Take it up with the widow of Zarephath (taking special note of Elijah’s [that great type of Christ] compassionate response to her bewildered, brokenhearted plea), or with the Shunammite woman (and consider Elisha’s pastoral response, and he the great Old Testament pastoral type of Christ Himself, who also had mercy on grieving mothers of Israel again and again).”
And the New Testament mothers of Israel, arms empty, have less comfort and hope than they?
For an informative and insightful article on the whole issue of children dying in infancy, we could direct you to another article in the MAJT (Vol. 17, 2006) entitled “The Election and Salvation of the Children of Believers Who Die in Infancy: A Study of Article I/17 of the Canons of Dort,” by C. Venema.
A worthwhile historical overview.
Next time we will return to Witsius’ treatise on “The Efficacy and Utility of Infant Baptism” to demonstrate what Witsius was convinced was the scriptural teaching on how believers are to view their covenant seed, which view he was also convinced was the prevailing Reformed view of his day.