MARS—A Monument to Heynsian Theology?

At long last we have been given a clear indication of the theological direction of the newly established Mid-American Reformed Seminary, the new theological school established in northwest Iowa by Christian Reformed people as an alternative to Calvin Seminary for the training of ministers in the Christian Reformed Church. This indication is given in the opening Convocation Address by the administrative dean, Dr. Peter Y. De Jong, an address published in The Outlook. Especially in the concluding part of this address (The Outlook, December, 1982, pp. 8-11) we are informed of this. The address is entitled “Toward a Distinctly Reformed Theology.” 

Frankly, I found that indication of the theological orientation of MARS to be a bit shocking. 

Let me explain. 

In speaking of the right approach to the Bible which is demanded for a distinctly Reformed theology, Dr. De Jong states: “What this means for the Reformed believer and theologian is that all the preaching and teaching and work to which Christ Jesus has commissioned His church, therefore also its doing of theology, should in the nature of the case be covenantally-oriented. With this I come to the heart of the message which I leave for your reflection.” He then proceeds to lay great stress on this need of being covenantally-oriented. Writes he: “That Scripture, both in the Old and the New Testaments, is covenantally-structured in content as well as form, cannot be rightly denied. Today theologians are again addressing themselves in depth to this subject of the covenantal structure of Scripture. Much of what they have done through their studies sheds a measure of new and fuller light on the truth which the Reformed churches have long confessed and cherished.” And again: “This emphasis on God’s covenant may well be considered the outstanding distinctive of the Reformed churches and therefore of their theological pursuits. Nowhere else has it been more enthusiastically discussed, believed and put into practice. Its importance for cultivating the godly life to God’s praise cannot be overrated.” And he claims for MARS the following: “How we will engage in theological pursuits from this covenantal understanding of Scripture is clearly discernible from our Catalogue of studies.”

When I read all this, and more, I began to think to myself that MARS appears to be on the right track. 

But the shock came when Dr. De Jong began to be more specific about this covenant orientation. For he explained:

This approach to theology was the strength and song of the Christian Reformed Church for many years. While many of its professors of theology could be mentioned as faithful representatives of this conviction, among them Vos and Berkhof and Bolveda, none stressed its propriety and fruitfulness so continually as a ,man whose life and labors in theological studies have been much too cavalierly ignored in recent decades. 

He was Willem Wynand Heyns, called to teach at, Calvin Seminary in 1902 after serving the churches as pastor for sixteen years. For twenty-five years he taught almost every minister and missionary who served the Christian Reformed Church. For years afterward he was remembered with love and respect.

Dr. De Jong then proceeds to praise the virtues of Heyn’s theology at length, concluding as follows:

Heyns would be the last to expect us to endorse every word he spoke and wrote on God’s covenant. We find some speculative elements with which few today would agree. But his approach to Reformed theology as biblically grounded and confessionally responsible deserves to be emulated because of its strong covenantal awareness. This gave life and breath and warmth to his teaching. This stirred ministers to preach the blessed message of God’s grace in Christ at home and abroad. This taught congregations to engage in “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

II Cor. 7:1

Now I will not quarrel with Dr. De Jong in his evaluation of Heyns as a theological professor, although to my mind, while Heyns was in many ways a good technician, he was by no means a great theologian. 

My quarrel is with the characterization of Heyns’s theology as being “biblically grounded and confessionally responsible” and as deserving “to be emulated because of its strong covenantal awareness.” 


In the first place, because it was Prof. Heyns who for years pumped into every Christian Reformed seminary student a view of the covenant which was thoroughly un-Reformed, which can be and has been characterized as nothing less than Arminianism applied to the covenant. For it was none other than Heyns who found the essence of the covenant to consist in a general, conditional promise to all children of believers, head for head and soul for soul. And it was Heyns who even taught a certain general covenant grace by which all children of believers were enabled either to accept or reject the promise, to meet or not to meet the condition. 

In the second place, because of his views it may be said that Prof; Heyns more than any other was the father of the First Point in 1924 in its teaching of the general, well-meant offer of salvation to all who hear the preaching. In fact, one of the last words of Prof. Heyns was an extensive defense of the well-meant offer in De Wachter in 1932-’33. 

If, therefore, MARS is to be devoted to Heynsian theology, its founders, professors, and students may from the outset forget about the possibility of “a distinctly Reformed theology.”