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The E.R.C.S.

The initials E.R.C.S. stand for the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore. 

By the time these lines are printed in our February 1 issue that Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore will have become a reality, according to present plans. The Lord willing, the group formerly known as the G.L.T.S. (Gospel Literature and Tract Society) among whom our missionary, Rev. Arie den Hartog, has been laboring will be instituted as the church on January 24. And they will be organized as a Reformed church, with the Three Forms of Unity as their confessional basis. 

That is great and good news for the saints in Singapore and for us. We rejoice with the young saints in faraway Singapore because they have achieved the desire of their hearts to be established as a Reformed church in that place. We wish them well in the future. We wish them the Lord’s blessing. For without that blessing they cannot really be and continue as the church. That is always true, but it is especially and emphatically true for the young E.R.C.S. in their peculiar situation, with their peculiar problems and circumstances. Most of us here in the U.S. cannot even begin to imagine the situation in a place like Singapore in the midst of which this new young congregation exists. For in many respects they must exist in the midst of what is really a heathen environment, with all that this entails. And as far as the church is concerned, the new young congregation cannot look to other churches in that city for help and support: for there is not another truly Reformed witness in Singapore. Hence, to be the church, and to be specifically a Reformed church, will be a constant battle for the saints there. And so we say to the E.R.C.S.: may the Lord our God prosper and strengthen you, and may He cause you to grow, to grow in spiritual strength, to grow in the knowledge and conviction of the Reformed faith, the faith of the gospel, and to grow numerically, so that there may be added to you such as should be saved. 

We rejoice, too, with Rev. and Mrs. den Hartog. We know and are sure that the achievement of this goal of the institution of the church there represents the achievement of a goal toward which our missionary has long labored diligently and faithfully. Rev. den Hartog—and this is the testimony not only of the saints in Singapore but also of those of us who had the opportunity to observe his work there firsthand—has labored with all his heart and soul in the cause of the gospel there. He was disappointed when the institution of the church was delayed; undoubtedly that very delay has now only served to increase his joy when at last the goal is achieved. May the Lord continue to bless his labors in Singapore, and may He in due time expand the work in that area. 

We may rejoice and do rejoice as Protestant Reformed Churches, too, because the Lord our God has blessed and prospered this foreign mission endeavor of our denomination. This was a work which first seemed so unlikely and impossible. It had its earliest beginnings when Rev. C. Hanko and I made what might be called an almost incidental side trip to Singapore at the time of our 1975 tour in behalf of our synodical Contact Committee. I recall that in our committee meetings we almost doubted whether we should spend the extra funds for this additional trip to Indonesia and to Singapore. When we actually went there and delivered two evening messages, it was really more or less “accidental” that the group then know as the G.L.T.D., through the initiative of brother Ong Keng Ho, sponsored the meetings. There really was no indication at that time of any positive response and fruit when we spoke those two evenings. Then for some two years we heard next to nothing from the young people of the G.L.T.D. The only contact we had during that time was through our literature. And suddenly, in mid-1977 I began to receive letters asking for help and instruction with regard to the doctrine of baptism, and before long an inquiry whether our Protestant Reformed Churches could help them to become instituted as a church. What happened after that we all know. When I forwarded to our Foreign Mission Committee the correspondence I had received, they sent emissaries to Singapore a couple of times, and soon recommended that we call a foreign missionary for the field. The Lord gave us Rev. den Hartog for this purpose. And now the church is instituted there! What hath God wrought! 

And how thankful and how encouraged we ought to be as churches!

The Hebrew Vowel Points of the Power Thereof

In the GKN document “God With Us,” the report/decision dealing with the nature of the authority of Scripture, there is a paragraph which rather derisively refers to one of the Reformed confessions without naming it and without quoting its statements. The paragraph in the GKN Report reads as follows (It is found on page 47 in the section we have already considered in our critique.):

As is described in Chapter III, in the Reformed tradition the teaching of the infallibility of the Holy Scripture has been defended for a long time in a sense of an absolute inerrancy. One then proceeded from the so-called mechanical inspiration by which one understood that the Holy Spirit literally dictated the Scriptures to the writers of the Bible. Sometimes the reasoning was so strict and direct that it was held that even the vowel marks of the Hebrew text were inspired. Apparently they did not yet know that these vowel marks were added to the text of the Old Testament in the Middle Ages.

The reference in this paragraph can only be to the one Reformed creed which makes mention of these Hebrew vowel points, namely, the Helvetic Consensus Formula. This was a rather late Reformed creed, composed at Zurich, Switzerland in 1675 by John Heidegger, of Zurich, with assistance from Francis Turretin, of Geneva, and Luke Gernler, of Basle. Its main purpose was to condemn and exclude from the Swiss churches the errors of Amyraldianism. But because of a current controversy about the doctrine of Scripture, particularly about the reliability of the Hebrew and Greek original texts of the Old and of the New Testaments respectively, it also included three articles about Scripture. It is in the second of these articles that reference is made to the Hebrew vowel points, a matter which I will explain in due course. But to understand and appreciate what this confession says on the matter, it is necessary to have all three articles before us. As you read these articles, ask yourself where the doctrine of mechanical inspirationoccurs, as the Dutch Report alleges. I could not find it! The articles do indeed teach verbal inspiration, but this is by no means the same as mechanical inspiration. Here are the articles:

I. God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have His word, which is the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth,” Rom. 1:16 committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets, and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care ever since it was written up to the present time, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the Church justly ascribes it to His singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world, a “sure word of prophecy” and “Holy Scriptures,” II Tim. 3:15 from which, though heaven and earth perish, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass.” Matt. 5:18

II. But, in particular, the Hebrew Original of the Old Testament, which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Jewish Church, unto whom formerly “were committed the oracles of God,” Rom. 3:2 is, not only in its consonants, but in its vowels—either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points—not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired of God, thus forming, together with the Original of the New Testament, the sole and complete rule of our faith and life; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, oriental and occidental, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed. 

III. Therefore we can by no means approve the opinion of those who declare that the text which the Hebrew Original exhibits was determined by man’s will alone, and do not scruple at all to remodel a Hebrew reading which they consider unsuitable, and amend it from the Greek Versions of the LXX and others, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Chaldee Targums, or even from other sources, yea, sometimes from their own reason alone; and furthermore, they do not acknowledge any other reading to be genuine except that which can be educed by the critical power of the human judgment from the collation of editions with each other and with the various readings of the Hebrew Original itself—which, they maintain, has been corrupted in various ways; and finally, they affirm that besides the Hebrew edition of the present time, there are in the Versions of the ancient interpreters which differ from our Hebrew context other Hebrew Originals, since these Versions are also indicative of ancient Hebrew Originals differing from each other. Thus they bring the foundation of our faith and its inviolable authority into perilous hazard.

First of all, let me explain what is meant by Hebrew “vowel points.” The Hebrew language, in which the Old Testament was originally written, has an alphabet of only twenty-two consonants; it has no vowels. That is, the spoken language had vowel sounds, of course: for without these there can be no speech. But there are no vowel symbols in the Hebrew alphabet, only consonants. And the “vowel points” are a system of symbols added to the written Hebrew of the Old Testament, and written either above or below the words themselves. These “vowel points” represent the sounds of a, e, i, o, u. These points as now used date back to the sixth or seventh century after Christ. When Article II of the Helvetic Consensus Formula speaks of “the power” of these vowel points, it refers to the fact that as long as Hebrew was a living, spoken language, the vowel sounds of the various words were evident and known to any Jew; he would not need the addition of symbols in order to understand how a word was to be read and pronounced. This is the “power,” or significance, of the points. Moreover, this “power” of the points was indicated in written Hebrew by especially three or four consonants: Aleph, He, Waw, Yodh. This is explained in Davidson-Mauchline,Hebrew Grammar, p. 14, as follows: “So long as Hebrew was a living language, the helps to vocalization described above (referring to the vowel letters, HCH), though scanty, might be found sufficient. But when the language ceased to be spoken and became unfamiliar, fuller representation of the vowels was needful for correct reading.” And again: “During the time when there were no written vowel signs, a tradition of pronunciation of the words of the Scripture was handed down. It was this tradition, named theMassora, which Jewish scholars, the Massoretes, in the early centuries of the Christian era, sought to preserve by the introduction of a system of vowel signs which received the name of the Massoretic System of Points. Its purpose was to preserve and to transmit with accuracy the textual tradition and to remove ambiguities, concerning the reading and interpretation of the consonantal text. . . . It probably dates from the sixth and seventh centuries; the signs are not regarded as integral parts of the words but are placed above or below so that they are outside them.” This last phenomenon is due to the fact that the Jewish scholars had such respect for the sacredness of the Hebrew text that they were very careful to preserve it unchanged and would not tamper with it by inserting any changes or additions in the text itself.

We have already noted that the articles of the Helvetic Consensus Formula give absolutely no indication of a theory of mechanical inspiration. What we, in fact, have in these articles is a beautiful confession of the truth of verbal inspiration and a beautiful confession of faith that the Lord our God caused the Scriptures to be preserved for His church down through the centuries. And the Dutch theologians who composed the Report/Decision concerning the authority of Scripture may babble about mechanical inspiration and may meanwhile so tamper with the whole doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture that virtually nothing is left of it, and they may meanwhile prate about the alleged ignorance of seventeenth century Reformed theologians; but give me the Helvetic Consensus Formula and its sound faith any day in preference to the unbelief of the report, “God With Us.”

But let us examine that charge of ignorance. 

Is it really true that the men of the seventeenth century “apparently. . .did not know that these vowel marks were added to the text of the Old Testament in the Middle Ages?” Were these men indeed ignorant? 

The opposite is true. The reader may judge whether the Dutch theologians, with all their vaunted learning, are indeed ignorant of the facts or whether they are deliberately twisting the truth. 

But here are the facts. And they may all be confirmed by consulting Francis Turretin’s Institutes, Locus 2, “The Doctrine of Scripture.” 

1. When the Helvetic Consensus Formula speaks of the “original,” it is not referring to the autographs, i.e., the books of Scripture as they came from the hands of Moses, Isaiah, Paul, etc. But they mean Hebrew and Greek copies of these autographs; and they are dealing with the question of the purity and reliability of these copies. Turretin treats this matter under Question 10: “Has the original text of the Old and New Testament come to us pure and uncorrupted? (Affirmative, against the Roman Catholics).” Turretin deals with this question, in part, as follows:

I.This question is forced upon us by the Roman Catholics, who raise doubts concerning the purity of the sources in order more readily to establish the authority of their Vulgate (Latin version, HCH) and lead us to the tribunal of the church. 

II. By “original texts” we do not mean the very autographs from the hands of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, which are known to be nonexistent. We mean copies (apographa), which have come in. their name, because they record for us that word of God in the same words into which the sacred writers committed it under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

III. There is no question of the sources being pure in the sense that no error has crept into many sacred codices, either from the ravages of time, or the carelessness of copyists, or the malice of Jews and heretics. This is recognized on both sides, and the variant readings, which Beza and Robert Stephanus have noted in Greek, and the Jews in Hebrew, witness sufficiently to this. But the question is whether the original text, in Hebrew or in Greek, has been so corrupted, either by the carelessness of copyists or by the malice of Jews and heretics, that it can no longer be held as the judge of controversies and the norm by which all versions without exception are to be judged. The Roman Catholics affirm this; we deny it.

Turretin then goes on to explain and to produce many strong arguments for this position. In the course of these arguments he even makes mention of the Massoretes and their work, as follows, using their work as one of the arguments in favor of a reliable Hebrew text: “The care with which the Massoretes not only counted, but recorded in writing, all variations in pointing and writing, not only with regard to verses and words, but to individual letters, so that there could be neither place for, nor suspicion of, forgers, an argument used by Arias Montanus in his biblical preface.” (pp. 113-115) 

2. There was indeed a debate in those years as to the question of the origin of the vowel points. For a long time it had been held that the so-called Massoretic Text had come either from Moses or from Ezra and the Great Synagogue; and many Reformed theologians still held in the seventeenth century that this was the case. But there were others—and a certain Louis Cappel was a leader among them—who held that the vowel points were a later help invented by the Massoretes in order to help with the preservation and reading of the traditional text. But to speak of ignorance in this connection is foolish. Reformed scholars like Turretin were well aware of the two possibilities. They were also well aware that not only Roman Catholics but also some Reformed men used the late date of the Massoretic points as an argument against the reliability of the Hebrew original. I could quote at length from the same work of Turretin already mentioned, but two paragraphs will suffice in this regard:

XII. (3) Even if the points were added at a late date, as these who date their origin from the Massoretes of Tiberias claim, it does not follow that they are merely a human device, depending only on human judgment, which indeed, if it be assumed, considerably weakens the authority of the Hebrew manuscript. For the pointing, in the opinion of those who hold this hypothesis, is not supposed to have been done according to the judgment of the rabbis, but according to the analogy of Scripture, the nature (genius) of the sacred language, and the meaning that had long been accepted by the Jews, so that even if the points were not, as on this hypothesis, part of the original with regard to their shape, it cannot be denied that they always were part of it with regard to sound and value, or power. (Here you have the same position as that of the Consensus Formula; and note the sound and scholarly argumentation. HCH) Otherwise, since vowels are the souls of consonants, the text would always have been ambiguous; indeed no clear meaning of the word would be possible unless [the vowels] were as old as the consonants, as Prideaux in his twelfth lecture on the antiquity of the points soundly observes: “That the points and accents were part of the original in respect to sound and value no one denies: [the question] only concerns the marks and characters.” And again, “the vowels were as old as the consonants with regard to underlying quality (uis) and sound, although the dots and marks which are now employed had not then appeared.” Indeed it is hardly possible to doubt that the vowels, if not with the same marks that are now written were nevertheless indicated by some marks in place of the points, in order that the sure and unchanging message (sensus) of the Holy Spirit, which otherwise, depending merely on human learning and memory, could easily have been forgotten, or corrupted, might be retained. [This could have been done,] as some suppose, by the letters aleph, waw, and yodh, which are therefore called “the mothers of speech.” Such is the opinion of the learned [Brian] Walton, who says, “By usage and the tradition of the elders, the true reading and pronunciation had been preserved by means of the three letters, aleph, waw, and yodh which are called mothers of speech and which served in place of the vowels before the introduction of the points” (Prolegomena to the [London] Polyglot 7).

Here, therefore, Turretin argues that regardless of the alleged late date of the Massoretic points, those points—and the Hebrew Original—are reliable. But he also makes it plain that the whole theory about the lateness of the points was at that time not firm, at the same time asserting that this is not the decisive factor:

XIII. (4) Our adversaries arbitrarily assume what requires proof, that points are a modern and human addition, a conclusion with which a great many Jews, notably Eli Levi, who lived a century ago, disagreed, in which they were followed by many highly regarded philologists (grammatici) and theologians, both Protestant and Catholic—Junius, Illyricus, Reuchlin, Munster, Cevalerius, Pagninus, M. Marinus, Polanus, Deodatus, Broughton, Muisius, Taylor, Booth, Lightfoot, and most theologians since them. The whole case seems to have been settled by the Buxtorfs, father and son, the first in his Tiberias, the second in that most thorough work with which he refuted Arcanum punctationis revelatum. It would not be difficult to support this position by a number of considerations, if we should now turn our attention to it, but since the question is one of philology rather than of theology we do not care to make it our battle. It is enough to have it understood that to us the teaching that regards the points as of divine origin has always seemed truer and safer, for the support of the authenticity of the original textwhole and complete against heretics, and the establishing of a sure and changeless principle of faith, whether [the points] come from Moses or from Ezra, the leader of the Great Synagogue, and so it is useless for our adversaries to seek to question the authority of the Hebrew manuscripts on the ground of the newness of the points. (pp. 131-133)

It ought to be clear, therefore, that the authors of the GKN’s Report/Decision do the Helvetic Consensus Formula and the theologians of that day gross injustice by their statement. And while the Report/Decision leaves the impression, or tries to, of great learning and thorough investigation, it would appear that its authors cannot stand in the shadow of the great men of God of the seventeenth century who are criticized by the Report. 

[Note: all the quotations of Turretin are taken from the recent Baker publication, The Doctrine of Scripture, Locus 2 of Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, Edited and Translated by John W. Beardslee III.]