Elsewhere in this issue you will find a contribution which critically questions the direction in which our churches decided to go with respect to New Zealand at our last Synod, Lest anyone—either among our own churches or among the brethren and sisters in New Zealand—should get any false impressions or misconceptions about these matters, I wish to reflect editorially on certain matters raised in that contribution and to set the record straight.
Before dealing with the substantive matters touched upon by the contribution, I wish to make a few remarks about the method and approach of it. I do not find the latter to be very helpful, either with respect to the decision-making process in our own churches or with respect to promoting and cementing relationships with other Reformed believers and churches in other parts of the world. Calm discussion of legitimate questions on the basis of accurate information is, of course, always proper and helpful. But I do not find such an approach in this contribution. Let me itemize a few matters. In the first place, if the brother wished to be helpful in the decision-making process of our churches, it seems to me he might have raised some questions long before our Synod convened. I wrote about the request of Christchurch and stated what the confessional basis of the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches is (the Westminster creeds) as long ago as December, 1975! How does it help the churches to wait with possible objections until after decisions have been taken? This reminds me of the Dutch saying, “met zout komen als het ei op is (coming with salt after the egg is eaten)”. Secondly, it is not even true that Synod’s decisions in this matter were unanimous. The original decision was. by a bare majority; and this original decision was later confirmed by an overwhelmingly favorable vote. This is an instance of inaccurate information; in this instance, it is relatively innocent, I suppose. But it typifies inaccurate information which has tended to undermine Synod’s decisions among those who are uninformed. And let me say right here that it is my understanding of the duty of delegates to Synod, also of those who vote negatively—unless, of course, they give notice of protest—that they should not go about saying things which tend to undermine decisions of Synod which are settled and binding. In the third place, I do not appreciate the innuendo of that unfounded word “dismay” in the opening sentence of this contribution. I submit that there has never in the history of our churches been any work or project about which a more complete account has been given, both in the official Tour Report to all our officebearers and in the unofficial story of the tour in my editorials. Is that reason fordismay? This was not the work of two men. It was not the work of the Contact Committee. It was not even the work merely of Synod. It was the work of our churches. And our churches had the right to know what was accomplished and what were the fruits. That the churches have been fully informed is, it seems to me, reason for rejoicing, not dismay. And I have been happy to hear from many individuals of their interest in and gratitude for the editorials about the tour. And as to preparing Synod to take a favorable decision? I point out: 1) My editorials, were totally unnecessary for this. All our officebearers received a detailed and official report (more detailed. than my editorials) of the tour from the Contact, Committee. 2) If you will take the trouble to look it up, I specifically refrained from any comment on the Christchurch request. I wrote that I would let the request speak for itself; and I reported that the Contact Committee was unanimously in favor of the request. 3) But if my editorials did indeed help to prepare the churches (not merely the Synod!) for this decision (which, I think, gives too much credit to my editorials), then I can only rejoice. For I am of the deep conviction that this is a right decision, that we are going in the right, direction, and that we are doing so in obedience to our Lord!
Finally, I must take pains to contradict the over-all impression which this contribution gives, as though Synod took a very hasty and reckless decision, did not know the implications of the decision, and even possibly was prepared to ignore or to sacrifice some of our cherished doctrinal and confessional positions. Nothing could be farther from the facts. I make bold to say that there was no single item on the Agenda of Synod which received more detailed attention and more careful and lengthy consideration than the request of Christchurch. There were no questions raised which did not receive a reply, and there were no contrary arguments which were not answered. Let our churches rest assured on that score,
But now let me address myself to some of the more substantive arguments which this contribution raises in question-form.
THE NATURE AND ORIGIN OF THE REQUEST
It is of the utmost importance that we understand how and why this request for a minister-on-loan came before our Synod. The facts about this were all reported in the Standard Bearer. But let me refresh your memory.
For some years, as you know, we have been in correspondence with various individuals and groups in New Zealand. Besides, we became known to many in that country through our Standard Bearer, our pamphlets, and our books. And we became known, remember, for our Reformed testimony. During this period the little group of Orthodox Presbyterian Churches was born—among them the Christchurch OPC, which was organized in June, 1974. What is the avowed purpose of these churches? To quote from the letter of Christchurch, it is “to stand uncompromisingly upon Scripture and the confessions.” Or again, to establish “a testimony faithful to the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions” in New Zealand. Bear in mind, too, that many of these brethren and sisters have separated from the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand at great sacrifice; and others could no longer be at home in the Reformed Church of New Zealand, and that, too, for doctrinal reasons.
Then came our visit of last year. And I believe—if anyone has doubts on this score—that the people in New Zealand (as did our friends in Australia) will bear us witness that in the busy days we were among them we surely did not hide from them who we were and what we stood for as representatives of the Protestant Reformed Churches. In sermons, lectures, and cottage meetings what we believed and what we did not believe as to the antithesis, the covenant, sovereign predestination, and sovereign, particular grace—all this came to the fore as much as possible during the short span of our tour.
Out of all this came this testimony (and I quote snatches of the letter from Christchurch): “. . . except to express our deepest gratitude to your committee and all who were used of God to make this tour possible. Its memories remain as an unforgettably and unspeakably blessed expression of the mercy of our covenant God.” Or again, they testify “that as our knowledge and understanding of the Reformed Faith has grown, bonds of unity and like-mindedness with the Protestant Reformed Churches in America have developed. The reality and degree of that unity will, we trust, be witnessed to you by Prof. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko.” And as they wrote in the same letter, even before our arrival in New Zealand, the congregation in Christchurch had decided to discuss with us the possibility of one of our ministers coming “to help in establishing a Church in Christchurch faithful to the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions.”
Then their request came to Rev. Hanko and me during our visit, and later came to our Contact Committee by official letter.
This request is for a minister, not a missionary. It would be an insult to send them a missionary. They represent the true church in New Zealand. They no longer have to be gathered and organized as a congregation. On the contrary, they desire a pastor and also one who may perform church extension and home mission work in their behalf. Moreover, by their own testimony—and under the Lord’s gracious leading—they have been attracted to us. Further, as a congregation and as a group of churches they are small and of little strength; they desperately need help and leadership and instruction and enrichment in the Reformed faith. In fact, in recent months their strength has even been diminished, due to the fact that two of their ministers have been on the sick list.
As I stated at Synod—and others said similar things: “The congregation at Christchurch is saying to us, in effect, ‘In all the world you of the Protestant Reformed Churches are the only ones to whom we can look for help. Please come over and help us.’ How, before the face of God, if the Lord makes it possible for us to help them, can we in good conscience say No to them?” I make bold to say that if, when it is possible for us to help them, we would refuse to do so, this would be sectarian and would be downright sinful!
THE CREEDAL BASIS
But what is the creedal basis of the OPC of Christchurch? Their confessions are the Westminster Confession and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms. This was plainly stated already in. our Tour Report to the churches, as well as in the Standard Bearer.
Let me point out the following in this connection.
In the first place, such differences in creeds have never been an obstacle to ecclesiastical fellowship among Reformed churches. The Reformed faith has come to expression in various creeds, according as it was confessed in various countries. Thus, for example, at the Synod of Dordrecht the various foreign delegates subscribed to several different Reformed confessions; but they all recognized one another as Reformed. It is true that the Westminster creeds had not yet been composed at that time; nevertheless some of the Westminster divines were also present at Dordrecht.
In the second place, our own churches are on record as accepting the Westminster creeds as a basis for ecclesiastical fellowship. Several years ago we declared that we had no objection to fellowship on the basis of creeds mentioned in the “Basis” of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, though we did object to a certain statement in that constitution. Besides, this is also in accord with the constitution of Synod’s Committee for Contact. Surely, we must not have the idea that only those who subscribe to our Three Forms of Unity, the creeds of the Dutch branch of the Reformation, are Reformed.
In the third place, what happens if there are certain points of difference between our Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms? Or what happens if there are items in the Westminster creeds which are not even mentioned in our creeds, but with which we cannot fully agree?
The answer, it seems to me, is obvious. It would be a matter of simple honesty to make such reservations known at the time one subscribes to the Westminster creeds. We certainly do not believe in subscribing to the creeds “tongue-in-cheek” or with mental reservations. That would be dishonest. Moreover, I do not know of any minister in our churches—thank God for that!—who would be guilty of such dishonesty. Furthermore, I am certain that the OPC of Christchurch would not even want a minister who would be less than honest about these matters. In their own past they have seen too much grief from such dishonesty in the church.
I hasten to add, in the first place, that this does not mean that a minister would immediately attempt tothrust his views on the OPC in New Zealand: for this would be a matter of discussion and instruction in mutual obedience to the Word of God. And, in the second place, from my present knowledge of the situation in New Zealand, I would not expect any great difficulty with regard to the two areas of reservations.
My final remark in this connection is that we must by all means not allow the presence of these two limited areas in which we have certain reservations with respect to the Westminster creeds to diminish our deep respect and esteem for these creeds. We must not have the impression that churches who subscribe to the Westminster creeds. are somehow “second rate” among Reformed churches. Nothing could be less true. I suppose there are not many among us who are thoroughly acquainted with these creeds. But those who have studied them will have a deep appreciation for them, and will even have to admit that in certain areas the Westminster documents excel our Three Forms of Unity.
But let us briefly look at each of those areas in which we have reservations: that of remarriage and that of the “covenant of works.” (On both of these subjects, by the way, our Committee for Contact has already informed the Session of Christchurch concerning our reservations.)
REMARRIAGE OF DIVORCED PERSONS
First of all, let us remember that the area of possible disagreement on this subject is very limited. It is simply not fair either to the Westminster Confession or to Presbyterians to speak in general of an “unbiblical declaration on the right of the divorced to remarry.” The Westminster Confession teaches only that the innocent party who obtains a divorce on the ground of adultery may remarry. Here is the statement, Chapter XXIV, pgph. 5: “In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.” Especially in our day of wholesale divorce, when it is well-nigh impossible and almost unheard of to obtain a divorce on the ground of adultery, this is a very limited area of disagreement. It is even very unlikely that a concrete case of this kind would ever arise.
In the second place, let us remember that this position of the Westminster Confession is the position which Reformed churches took for hundreds of years. True, they did not all make creedal statements on this subject; but this was nevertheless the historic Reformed position. In fact, it was also the position taken by our own Protestant Reformed Churches until, through the instruction of the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema, we came to a clearer insight into Scripture on this subject.
In the third place, let us not be so self-righteous as to insist that everyone in another denomination must immediately see this point, must change his stand, and must refuse communion to such a remarried person. I call your attention to the fact that this is not the way things were done in our own denomination. When the late Rev. Hoeksema came to this position on remarriage, the majority of First Church’s consistory disagreed at first and clung to the traditional position. Did he fight the issue by way of protest and appeal? Not at all, but he left the matter to the process of instruction, expecting, correctly, that eventually the Word of God would have its way. And so, over a period of years, in more than one of our churches many of us have administered to and celebrated the sacraments with persons whom we later say were not properly remarried, though at the time the consistory itself might have approved the remarriage.
Now I do not even know that this will be a burning issue in New Zealand. I have no reason to think so; and I have some reasons to think it will not be. But I would expect a minister who goes to New Zealand to be at least as patient in dealing with such a situation in those churches, which are in their infancy and which have not had the benefit of the instruction and experience which we have had, as we were in past years in our own Protestant Reformed Churches. And in case there should be disagreement on this subject initially, I submit that a Protestant Reformed minister in Christchurch would free his conscience and his record from responsibility in this matter by making known to all concerned that he does not believe that Scripture allows such remarriage. Moreover, let me call attention to the fact that this would not affect our own churches and the stand of our churches in the least.
But let me say again: this is “jumping the gun.” We know of no problem in this area. And we do know—because our pamphlets and books have been distributed in New Zealand—that they are aware of our stand. In fact, just about the time that the contribution under discussion arrived in my mail the quarterly magazine of the OPC of New Zealand, The Gospel Witness, also arrived. And in that issue there appeared the most glowing recommendation—without negative criticism—of the Rev. Engelsma’s recent book on Marriage that I have read thus far. And it came from the pen of one of the OPC ministers, the Rev. Ivo Bishop. If space permits, I will reprint the review in this issue.
THE “COVENANT OF WORKS”
Also on this matter we should keep things in perspective.
In the first place, it is surely true that the Westminster Confession speaks of a “covenant of works.”
In the second place, however, it is not true that the Westminster Confession—even though we would have reservations about what it says—teaches the covenant of works in the traditional sense in which Charles Hodge or L. Berkhof teach it. When you read all that the Westminster says on this subject, and read it in the context of the entire confession and in the light of the history of doctrine, you will discover that this is the case.
In the third place, it is surely not true that there is any more room in the Westminster creeds, than in our own creeds, for the miserably Arminian conditional view of the covenant of grace and the promise which we all repudiated in the struggle of 1950-’53. The Westminster creeds are thoroughly Reformed when it comes to the doctrine of sovereign, particular grace. Those who want a general, conditional offer have to tamper with these creeds or add a Declaratory Statement, as, for example, the Bible Presbyterian Church has done.
In the fourth place, I will very frankly state that there is as yet no well developed view of the covenant in the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches of New Zealand. How could there be? These churches are in their infancy. Besides, they have not had the same struggle we have had. They are waiting to be enriched on this subject.
In the fifth place, I know these three facts: 1) We did not hide from the New Zealand friends our beautiful idea of God’s covenant of friendship as it is sovereignly and unconditionally established and realized with His elect people in Christ. In fact, I recall distinctly that I personally more than once spoke of it in approximately the above words. It is, after all, of the bone and marrow of my theological convictions! 2) That the OPC of New Zealand and specifically of Christchurch are, and showed themselves to be, averse to Arminianism, even as we are. And they take this very seriously. 3) That they know who we are and what we stand for, have found themselves to be like-minded with us, and for that reason have asked for our help. What more can anyone ask?
But there is one thing that grieves me deeply in Brother Feenstra’s article. That is those suggestions, be it in question form. That kind of thing hurts. It is not edifying. And it is altogether uncalled for. I must ask the brother to retract his suggestion that “this matter of a conditional or unconditional view of the covenant (is) now non-essential.”—unless, of course, he can show on the basis of objective evidence that to Rev. Hanko and me as emissaries, or to the Committee for Contact, or to the Synod this matter has indeed become non-essential.
In what direction are we going?
In the right direction!
Is what we are now about to do in New Zealand proper?
Yes, by all means!
God wills it. To refuse would be flagrant disobedience.
Let us pray for grace to obey gladly, to be thankful for an open door; and let us pray fervently for the church “down under” and that God will send to Christchurch the man of His choosing.