1953 stands for the doctrinal controversy that convulsed the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The controversy concluded with the schism in 1953 in which a majority of churches, members, and ministers left the PRC, soon to return to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
The issue was the doctrine of the covenant, no minor matter, especially for Reformed churches. The issue came to a head in two statements in two different sermons by one of the ministers. A classis judged the statements heretical. But the real issue was the introduction into the PRC of a doctrine of the covenant that held that God makes His covenant with all the physical children of believing parents alike. God makes His covenant with all alike by promising every one of them salvation at his or her baptism. This promise depends, however, on the child’s performing the condition of believing when he or she grows up.
Implied is a grace of God — a covenant grace of God — for all the children of believers, those who perish as well as those who are saved, and a desire of God to save them all. Expressed is the failure of the promise of God in many cases and the dependence of salvation, in the final analysis, on the will and act of the child. One of the patriarchs of the PRC, who also played a leading role in the struggle, the Rev. Gerrit Vos, impressed upon me that the issue was this doctrine of the covenant. During my seminary days, which began only seven years after the schism, Vos told me, “People argue about the two statements. They were bad statements. But they were not the issue. The issue was the conditional covenant with all the children. We all knew that this was the issue.”
The struggle was fierce, as only a church struggle over doctrine between former brothers and sisters can be. Although I was only 14 in 1953, I remember vividly the tense church services, depending on who was preaching; the loud, heated arguments on the church grounds after the services; and, especially painfully, the rage and shouting that broke up family gatherings of long standing and reduced bewildered children to tears.
Close friends separated; families divided; schools and churches emptied.
One needs only to read the issues of the Standard Bearer of that period to sense the intensity of the conflict.
Not all the fire was holy. Not on the side of the PRC either.
The struggle spilled over the borders of the little PRC. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands followed the controversy. One of the Dutch denominations was indirectly involved since it was their covenant view that occasioned the struggle. A prominent Baptist preacher in Grand Rapids advertised his Sunday evening sermon topic in the Press, “Who is right: Hoeksema or De Wolf?” There is disquieting reason to suspect that conservative Christian Reformed ministers, then in power in the CRC, were secretly involved with the Protestant Reformed ministers responsible for the conflict already before the break took place in 1953.
The outcome of the doctrinal controversy was the declaration by the PRC in a synodical decision that the covenant promise of God, particularly at baptism, is made to the elect children alone. The faith of the child is not a condition upon which the promise and its salvation depend, but is itself part of the blessing given by the promise. The covenant grace of God is particular, not general. It is for the elect alone. In its bestowal and reception, this grace is sovereign, not dependent on the sinful child, nor effectual, even in part, by virtue of the child’s will and deed.
By grace, the children are saved in the covenant through faith, and that faith is not of themselves, but is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). As is the case with all others who are saved, the origin of the salvation of the covenant children is God’s eternal election in Christ (Eph. 1:4).
This official declaration by the PRC on the covenant is called “The Declaration of Principles.” As the appropriate and necessary response to controversy, it expresses the faith of the PRC as to the teaching of Scripture and the Reformed confessions on the covenant.
The controversy over the covenant ended with the churches’ official condemnation of a conditional covenant (in classis’ judgment that the two statements were heretical) and in the churches’ official adoption of the doctrine of an unconditional covenant of grace (in the “Declaration”).
This was continuing reformation of the church.
It was continuing reformation of the PRC. The PRC carried through, consistently, in the doctrine of the covenant the truth of sovereign, particular grace that they had confessed from the beginning of their existence as churches.
Make no mistake, the churches had always taught, and been taught, the doctrine of an unconditional covenant. Those ministers who in the late 1940s and early 1950s became enamored of a conditional covenant and were determined to introduce it into the PRC knew full well that they were overthrowing what the PRC had always stood for.
As early as 1927, in a series of articles in the Standard Bearer that were soon published as the booklet, Geloovigen en Hun Zaad (Believers and Their Seed), Herman Hoeksema had set forth in detail the covenant conception that he insisted was fundamental to the very existence of the PRC. At the same time he sketched the conditional theory of the covenant with which the doctrine that threatened in 1953 is essentially identical and damned it as “the old Pelagian error applied to the doctrine of the covenant” (Believers and Their Seed, RFPA, tr. and repr. 1971, p. 20).
This was in 1927!
The schismatic preachers in the PRC were dishonest when they told the people that Hoeksema himself had earlier advocated a conditional covenant and that the PRC had no definite covenant doctrine.
But before 1951-1953, the PRC had not officially adopted the doctrine of the covenant that they had always believed and confessed. Men could, therefore, contend that the prevailing covenant doctrine was merely that of Professors Hoeksema and Ophoff. So also, I suppose, prior to the adoption of the Lutheran creeds men could say that justification by faith only was merely the view of Luther, and prior to the Synod of Dordt men could say that double predestination was merely the view of Calvin.
In 1951-1953, the doctrine of a particular, unconditional covenant, in Christ the head of the covenant, with believers and their elect children became the official doctrine of the PRC.
In formulating and adopting the doctrine, the PRC simply applied to the covenant the truth of sovereign, particular grace for which they contended in their controversy with the CRC over the “well-meant offer of the gospel.”
Thus, the teaching of universal, ineffectual grace in the covenant was purged from the PRC.
There was consistency.
There was development of the truth.
There was rejection of the opposing false doctrine.
There was continuing reformation of the PRC.
1953 represented also the continuation of the great Reformation of the 16th century. Churches and theologians will dismiss this claim as ridiculous, but the fact remains.
The Reformation of the 16th century restored to the church Augustine’s gospel of particular salvation by sovereign grace alone, while developing this truth in the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The Synod of Dordt defended the Reformation’s gospel of salvation by grace alone through (not: on account of) faith alone against the universal, conditional grace of Arminian free-willism. It did so in such a way as to make the prevailing doctrines of the Reformation the official teachings of the Reformed churches worldwide.
But Dordt did not explicitly address the issue of grace in the covenant, that is, in the family of believers.
After Dordt, two opposite teachings appeared in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Often, they contended with each other in sharp conflict, as in the churches of the Secession in the Netherlands in the 19th century. The one holds, in one form or another, that God makes His covenant with every physical child of believers by conditional promise to each of them. The other holds that God’s covenant is with Christ and, in Him, with elect believers and their elect children, by unconditional promise.
The former is, in reality, the teaching of universal grace in the covenant, grace wider than Christ and His elect church, grace dependent upon man’s will and work (faith as a condition).
The latter is, in reality, the gospel of particular grace in the covenant, grace as wide as, but no wider than, Christ and His elect church, grace dependent only upon the promising God and inclusive of the gift of faith.
This latter, the PRC, through the fire of white-hot, fierce, painful church struggle, have been guided to believe and confess.
This is genuine continuation and development of the Reformation of the 16th century.
Here we stand!