It is a timely thesis.
It is a thesis well done.
The thesis to which we refer is that of Prof. Ronald Cammenga, a thesis submitted to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary in 2013, and now revised and enlarged in 2014, to complete the requirements for his Master of Theology Degree. The thesis is entitled God of Friendship: Herman Hoeksema’s Unconditional Covenant Conception. Prof. Cammenga sat for the defense of his thesis in May of 2013, which oral defense was approved, and he was granted his Th. M.
Interestingly, Dr. John Bolt was one of the two faculty members who served to ‘interrogate’ Cammenga on his thesis and then signed his ‘parchment.’ The other was Dr. Richard Muller, Prof. Cammenga’s faculty supervisor.
In his introduction Prof. Cammenga informs us that he found their examination to be an enjoyable experience.
On behalf of the Theological School Committee and our churches we take this opportunity to extend to Prof. Cammenga congratulations and a word of thanks for his persistent and diligent labors that gave birth to this thesis in its finished form.
We understand that some twenty copies or so of the thesis have been printed and bound in book form, some for our Theological School’s library, the others distributed to colleagues and friends who expressed an interest in reading it for themselves and adding it to their libraries.
I have done so myself. And profited.
The thesis in its present format is 338 pages long (with thirty pages of bibliography), long enough (and substantial enough) to have served as a doctoral thesis we would judge. We find no fault with that. The subject matter, a thorough review of Hoeksema’s covenantal view with an extensive study of its Reformed roots and historical origins, deserves no less in our judgment. The simple fact is that H. Hoeksema, due to the well-developed covenant view that has come to be identified with his name, has gained a certain status in the Reformed theological world these days; a theologian to be read and interacted with if one is to be considered well-read in covenantal theology.
Prof. Cammenga’s thesis is timely.
If there is one doctrine dominating the theological landscape in Calvinistic circles today, it is the doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant; and with it sharp debate about its biblical character—conditional or unconditional, unilateral or bi-lateral, one made with the elect seed only or with all the children of believers—and more aspects besides.
As is well known, the great heresy threatening the Reformed church world of the twenty-first century is that of the Federal Vision. And at the root of that teaching is its conditional covenant emphasis. Its proponents are insistent on that.
Shades of Schilder and Hoeksema and what precipitated the 1953 controversy with its subsequent split within our churches ‘all over again’.
Strikingly, once again God uses false doctrine to revive (to compel men to) a more careful study of a biblical, confessional truth. In this instance, that of God’s covenant and its promise(s)—to whom is it made? And, what is the nature of the ‘grace’ to be associated with this covenant—sovereign and particular, or general and merely offered, the sovereign God waiting upon the sinner’s accepting will?
The Federal Vision heresy, with its roots so emphatically grounded in the ‘Heynsian, Schilderian’ view of the covenant, has forced denomination after denomination with their theologians to re-examine their view of God’s covenant with His Israel, to ask themselves whether the conditional, bi-lateral, contracting covenant view really stands the test of Scripture, the confessions, and the solid Reformed and Presbyterian theologians of the past.
In our judgment, it is especially in that last-mentioned area, namely, the prevailing consensus of Reformed and Presbyterian worthies of the past, that brother Cammenga makes a significant contribution to the present ‘discussion’ swirling about the nature of God’s everlasting covenant with fallen man. Numerous quotations are lifted from past writings.
And the thesis is even-handed, offering extensive quotes from both sides of the historical debate and controversy.
Prof. Cammenga’s thesis is well laid out—systematically!
The thesis has four main sections: (1) The Covenant as a Bond of Friendship; (2) Election Applied to the Covenant; (3) Within the Tradition; (4) The Unconditional Covenant.
The first two sections (covering 104 pages), dealing as they do with Hoeksema’s development of the doctrine of the covenant, as well as with some of our history with Schilder and the Liberated Churches, and then with laying out the biblical basis for the truth of God’s covenant, will be of greatest interest to the general reader. These sections should prove to be most useful in providing an overview of the main ideas and emphasis of the truth of God’s covenant with its promises to those whom He chose to be His friends.
But it is that third section that we value most.
This is not to minimize the value of the first two sections of the thesis, nor that of the concluding section, dealing as it does with the conditional-unconditional controversy that has raged over the nature of the covenant and come into such sharp focus of late.
But the third section we judge to be of special value. To the general reader these 100-plus pages might prove tedious due to the number of quotations lifted from so many theologians who addressed the doctrine of the covenant—going back to the Reformation and the formulating of the great confessions.
Daunting as some might find all these quotations, this is where Prof. Cammenga’s research shows itself— extensive research that makes his thesis a Master’s thesis. The value of the quotations (with sources listed for further reading for the interested) is not just the number of quotes, but their sources, the authors quoted—a veritable Who’s Who of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians. Great names of both Continental and English-speaking origin, theologians ranging back through the pages of history to the sixteenth and seventeen centuries (names such as Calvin, Bullinger, Turretin, and Perkins), followed by numerous quotations from men of the Afscheiding era (such as de Cock and Van Velzen), and then on to A. Kuyper’s era, with a special emphasis on Bavinck. Nor is there lack of quotes lifted from theologians of the twentieth-century— men such as the Voses (of Princeton renown in her better days), and Berkhof, Heyns, and Schilder and supporters of his view as well.
And that is just a sampling.
The value of the thorough research and wide-ranging references— quotations from primary and secondary sources—is that Cammenga demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the proposition that serves as the heading of his third section, namely, that Herman Hoeksema as a theologian, was “within the tradition.” Cammenga has particular reference to Hoeksema’s covenant view, a perspective in which election looms so large, a covenant bound by the grace of election. And hence it is a view in which God is sovereign both as the initiator and maintainer of His covenant, and man the blessed and ‘graced’ recipient—a grace of an irresistible sort!
What becomes plain, as Cammenga lifts quotation after quotation from old worthies known for their orthodoxy, is that Hoeksema’s perspective of God’s eternal, unchangeable covenant—a perspective in which election plays a governing role and God’s Fatherly friendship gives it its ‘Divine family’ life and warmth—is not a novel teaching. It is not a view to be dismissed as altogether new and, therefore, to be banished to the realm of the ‘hyper’s’ and ‘the extremists.’
Though, if that were true, the quotes found in Cammenga’s thesis would certainly demonstrate that going back through Reformed and Presbyterian/Puritan history, there are a goodly number of old worthies who, by today’s standards, are deserving of the label of ‘hypers’ and ‘extremists.’ A rather common category as judged by their covenantal views.
The simple fact is that the company in which Hoeksema and his protégés find themselves (ourselves) is a company of which no man should be ashamed—men of no mean theological and spiritual stature.
This the thesis makes clear as crystal.
If there is to be a charge of departing from the historic Reformed and covenantal ‘river-bed,’ it becomes plain the charge is to be laid at the door of those who want to excise election from the covenant, those who go on to insist that God’s covenant promises pertain to and are sincerely meant for all the children of believers, even those who, like Esau, are reprobate and carnal seed.
To be sure, there can be found Reformed theologians of the hoary past who taught that, as the thesis acknowledges and shows. But they, it becomes plain, were not the solid, consistent Calvinists. They were not the ones who defined the Reformed consensus.
The thesis lifts a lovely quote from the writings of Geerhardus Vos, a theologian of Princeton fame whom no one has ever labeled as ‘hyper-,’ a quote that underscores the Reformed consensus. Addressing the issue of what determines who the seed of the covenant are, and hence members in it, Vos writes:
[It is] an essential feature of the [Reformed] covenantal outlook… that this outlook cannot function apart from the idea of election [!]. The origin of the grace of God, the full benefits of which the Reformed believer enjoys by the covenant, always lies for him in election. If consciousness of the covenant is the right expression for the consciousness of faith in its Reformed form, then there must not only be a place in it for the idea of election, but it must be permeated by that idea (emphasis ours—kk). Otherwise its deepest, and the most beautiful fragrance [!] would be lacking. (Doctrine of Covenant, 257; Thesis, 203)
A beautiful fragrance indeed. A Reformed Calvinist whose senses are dead to that fragrance is to be pitied. Something is strangely amiss in his covenant sensibilities and taste.
The fourth section, which treats the unconditional nature of the covenant, with special attention paid to the contact Hoeksema and our churches had with the Liberated and the subsequent controversy, is also filled with an excellent selection of quotes. The numerous quotes can become a source of new information.
The thesis also cleared up a mystery for this writer, namely, why we as Protestant Reformed, with our sister churches in Northern Ireland and Singapore, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia seem to be the only denominations left sounding a warning against the error of common grace. After all, was it not Schilder’s opposition to Kuyper’s common grace that first brought him to Hoeksema’s at tention and served as a basis for seeking further contact? Why have the Liberated gone silent on opposing this popular error?
The thesis clarifies the mystery.
In a quote lifted from Una Sancta, the magazine of the Free Reformed (Liberated) Churches in Australia, we learned (from a Liberated writer):
…Schilder modified his position [on common grace]. The Protestant Reformed Churches totally denied the doctrine of common grace, even to the point where they said: grace is only for the elect; and therefore God only makes a covenant of grace with the elect as well. Schilder understood that this was the logical [!] consequence of saying ‘no’ to common grace, but Schilder did not want to go there. So—on the point of common grace—Schilder had the courage to acknowledge that his “system” was not perfect: in relation to the covenant he did believe in an element of common grace [!] (Thesis, 92-93).
That is quite a statement for a number of reasons. The more one reads it, the more ‘illuminating’ and baffling it becomes.
Schilder understood the irrefutable logic (consistency!) of Hoeksema’s perspective on the doctrine of the covenant (which irrefutable logic many others also acknowledge, and which, for some mysterious reason, is what makes Hoeksema worthy of being labeled an extremist), and yet denied Hoeksema’s conclusion.
And keep in mind that it is Schilder’s thinking and conditional covenantal view that rule the Federal Vision perspective loose in so many churches today.
What the above quote betrays is a determination by many to refuse, deny, and, for some, even to denounce all logic and reason in order to maintain their pet doctrines. And that in turn implies, as far as these men are concerned, that when it comes to truth, God and His Word are just as inconsistent and irrational as are these men’s doctrinal views.
Inconsistency becomes a virtue well-nigh divine! Mind-boggling, to say the least.
But it seems to be all the rage these days.
This was not Hoeksema’s way of thinking. Nor, as Cammenga’s thesis makes plain, that of many sound covenantal theologians that preceded Hoeksema.
Prof. Cammenga’s thesis is a welcome addition to the Protestant Reformed defense of God’s sovereign and unconditional covenant of grace.
His thesis will serve our churches and the truth well, and we would hope, the Reformed ecclesiastical world as well. Copies should be sent to other Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries to be added to their libraries and read.
Those interested in purchasing a copy of the thesis should contact Prof. Cammenga through our seminary. Bound volumes can be obtained at cost ($25 or so).
And perhaps the RFPA should consider publishing it? At least sections of it.
It is a work that merits a wider reading public.