Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
I Peter 3:15
On looking at the Brief Declaration of Principles, which was drawn up by the Protestant Reformed synod in 1950, one might wonder at its claim to be “brief.” In its original form it appeared as a full pamphlet by itself, and one reading it today goes through a full 24 pages of very solid material as it appears in our present book of church order. But this is misleading; for the actual Declaration is in itself quite brief, with its appearance of length being due to the fact that all its supporting references to the confessions are printed out in full. That, after all, was its purpose. The Declaration was intended simply to point out certain confessional principles which must be observed in setting forth any acceptable view of the covenant. And in doing so it designated—if we may go back and pick up a rather ancient term—our loci communes, or what might more loosely be called our “places of communion.”
The expression loci communes is Latin, and translates literally, “common places.” It was, in Reformation days, used to indicate what was considered to be a basic element in the practice of “dialectics.” Dialectics was a form of reasoning or study through which understanding of a subject was developed through the exchange of ideas, or dialogue. Few have expressed its basic idea more distinctly than did Rev. Hoeksema once, many years ago, while preaching about the men on the road to Emmaus. He brought out how, after Jesus had joined them on the way, they made mention of the things which had happened at Jerusalem, to which Jesus replied, Luke 24:18, “What things?” At that point Rev. Hoeksema remarked: “That is the basic principle of pedagogy (sound teaching method — BW): Listen! Take my advice. When talking with others, whether they agree with you or disagree, let them talk! This is the fundamental principle of all good pedagogy.” And he did that himself. When teaching, whether in the seminary classroom or in the adult catechism class which he taught throughout his ministry, he was always distinctly interested in what those he was teaching had to ask or say. In fact, even in his preaching, he always spoke as one closely attuned to the minds and understanding of those to whom he spoke. He always expressed himself in such a way that the ordinary hearer could understand and benefit from what he had to say. And that was the idea of loci communes. They were the ideas or places which were held in common, and thus, from which deeper understanding could be developed.
In such unity, as we saw in our last article, is found the essence of a Christian church and a true denomination. These are not just social institutions which serve to bring people together. A church is a spiritual body joined together in a common faith with a united conviction, founded on the teachings of the Word of God.
Thus our origin as Protestant Reformed Churches had been in a common conviction as to the importance of the doctrine of predestination as set forth and defended in our confessions, and particularly in the Canons of Dordt. Through the years this doctrine had often been under attack; and in 1924 a major compromise of it was set forth in the Three Points of common grace. And, because of his refusal to accept this compromise, Rev. Hoeksema was deposed from his office in the CRC, and with his followers formed the Protestant Reformed Churches, joined together in their common commitment to the distinctively Reformed doctrines of grace. It was thus in a very real, practical way that our commitment to these doctrines constituted our loci communes, without which there would have been no valid grounds for leaving our mother church; and it had continued to be so through the early years of our existence.
But then Schilder came a second time, and through the concourse of events had an opportunity to visit almost individually with each of our pastors; and things began to change. For the first dissonant sounds of objection were heard against our past insistence on these doctrines, together with a growing cry for more “practical” preaching. Quietly at first, but with growing insistence, it was claimed that, as long as one voiced agreement with the confessions, he should be free to pursue his own thoughts wherever they might lead. And the result was there to be felt: that unity which had before bound our churches was crumbling, and the tension of diverse and conflicting ideas pulled at the hearts of our people. Clearly something had to be done; and the occasion arose of itself when the request came from the mission field for a declaration as to where our churches actually stood. And so our Brief Declaration of Principles was born, a clear and concise statement, not so much of a covenant doctrine, but of the limitation which our confessions require of us, briefly set forth in three concise statements—to which a fourth was added relating to a matter of church government.
The first of these looked to our origin, pointing out the familiar principles upon which our churches were founded—together with ample supporting quotations from the confessions. Briefly it said of the Protestant Reformed Churches:
I.They repudiate the errors of the Three Points adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, 1924, which maintain:
A.That there is a grace of God to all men, including the reprobate, manifest in the common gifts to all men.
B.That the preaching of the gospel is a gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to all that externally hear the gospel.
C.That the natural man through the influence of common grace can do good in this world.
D.Over against this they maintain:
1.That the grace of God is always particular, i.e., only for the elect, never for the reprobate.
2.That the preaching of the gospel is not a gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to all men, nor a conditional offer to all that are born in the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, to all that are baptized, but an oath of God that He will infallibly lead all the elect unto salvation and eternal glory through faith.
3.That the unregenerate man is totally incapable of doing any good, wholly depraved, and therefore can only sin.
Here, in few words, the Declaration outlined the faults of the Three Points of common grace, and over against them those principles of the Reformed faith to which we had held from our origin. There was no question about them. Everyone knew what they said; but there was reason to point them out once more with their confessional base. No one should be left free to forget them, or to conclude that these principles are simply a matter of individual eccentricity. In fact, so convincingly had they been set forth that Dr. Schilder himself had come to acknowledge the validity of what they expressed—although whether in the same way we did has never been clearly established. And the reiteration of this all once again laid the foundation for what was to follow.
From there, the Declaration went on to point out an even more basic foundation which required us to take the position we did. It brought to the fore the theme of the Canons of Dordt, upon which all who are Reformed are expected to stand:
II.They teach on the basis of the same confessions:
A.That election, which is the unconditional and unchangeable decree of God to redeem in Christ a certain number of persons, is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation, whence flow all the gifts of grace, including faith.
B.That Christ died only for the elect and that the saving efficacy of the death of Christ extends to them only.
C.That faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.
These were the truths we had fought for from our beginning; and the point of them was to prove particularly disturbing to Dr. Schilder, as well as to those among us who were drawn to follow him. A common resentment was growing against the idea “that election … is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation.” This lies, of course, at the heart of the Canons, as the supporting confessional quotations brought out; but it had never been an easily accepted truth, and efforts had always been there to hedge it in. There was another factor brought here to the fore that was even more irritating. It pointed to the insistence of the confessions that as election is unconditional, so must be the salvation which comes from it; and the use of that term unconditional had become increasingly the point of the whole debate.
And so the Declaration drove its point home:
III.Seeing then that this is the clear teaching of our confession,
a.That the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized.
b.That we may presuppose that all the children that are baptized are regenerated, for we know on the basis of Scripture, as well as in the light of all history and experience, that the contrary is true.
2.The teaching that the promise of the covenant is an objective bequest on the part of God, giving to every baptized child the right to Christ and all the blessings of salvation.
B.And we maintain:
1.That God surely and infallibly fulfills His promise to the elect.
2.The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer. All those who are not thus disposed, who do not repent but walk in sin, are the objects of His just wrath and excluded from the kingdom of heaven. That the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance; and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace.
3.That the ground of infant baptism is the command of God and the fact that according to Scripture He established His covenant in the line of continued generations.
Here, so quickly, and with a clear and concise logic, the Declaration makes application of the Reformed doctrine that God has from eternity appointed His salvation for a particularly chosen people to the doctrine of the covenant. Neither through the means of conditionality or presupposition can this be generalized to all, even when applied to those baptized into the church. The decision as to who are finally to enter into the life of the covenant is only God’s. Nevertheless, at the same time it made clear that this never comes to be without the living of a godly life and fulfillment of covenant responsibilities. God is not mocked, and only those who live a godly life shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And then, finally, almost in passing, the Declaration laid down one last point:
IV.Besides, the Protestant Reformed Churches: Believe and maintain the autonomy of the local church.
This was not in itself a problem; it was just that it formed the one area between us of real agreement. It was that point of church government, the misuse of which had affected us both. In the same way that we had been cast out in 1924, the Liberated had been cast out in 1944; and thus it was the area in which, more than any other, we were drawn together. It was that starting point at which we had hoped to start an enduring relationship; and it was to be remembered as the common ground upon which future relationships would have to be built if there was to be any hope of still working together as time went on.
That was it. Not by any means a spelling out of a doctrine of the covenant — although we did have a very distinct one with which we had worked for many years, and of which we were very fond — but simply A Brief Declaration of Principles which we believed were clearly spelled out in our confessions, and which should be observed by all who sought to teach and influence within the Protestant Reformed Churches.
And yet, there were two other things, by way of introduction and application, which should be considered.
One was the paragraph with which the Declaration was introduced, reading:
To be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches on the basis of Scripture and the confessions as these have always been maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches and as these are now further explained in regard to certain principles.
This Declaration arose out of a particular mission situation, and it was not intended to be used more broadly than that. It was on the mission field that we had been asked repeatedly as to whether the Protestant Reformed Churches had a position on the covenant; and its answer was only, in effect, that these principles laid down by our confessions must be observed. But it had become more than that, for it touched upon the very thing that was causing deep division within our churches. It immediately implied that the covenant could not be for every child baptized in the church, and could not be conditional. This the Declaration very clearly was designed to underline.
The other was that this Declaration was not to be finally adopted until it had been passed on for consideration to all of the churches. Nothing was to be imposed on the churches without their having an opportunity to speak to it. But even more, the time had come when it had to be determined whether our own Protestant Reformed Churches were all still willing to meet this criteria; for it would be of no use to require of others what we were not willing to meet ourselves. And it was at this point that the Declaration was to serve its greatest purpose, for it would bring out how great the fragmentation had become through our contact with Dr. Schilder and those that followed him. The way was to be hard and difficult, but one that had to be undertaken.