Previous article in this series: February 15, 2013, p. 220.
As stated in two previous articles, we intend, eventually, to offer a brief analysis of an article found in the Mid-America Journal of Theology, volume 22, 2011 (MAJT 22) entitled “Calvin’s Treatment of the Offer of the Gospel and Divine Grace,” by J. Mark Beach, a professor of Mid-America Seminary.
But before we do that, we wish to draw your attention to a couple of other articles in recent issues of this Journal.
The first is “Not Subtle Enough: An Assessment of Modern Scholarship on Herman Bavinck’s Reformulation of the Pactum Salutis Contra ‘Scholastic Subtlety’” (MAJT 22, 2011), by Dr. L. R. O’Donnell III. The other is “Covenant and Election in the Theology of Herman Bavinck” (MAJT 19, 2008), by Dr. C. Venema (a professor of Mid-America Seminary).
It is not our intention to write in-depth critiques of either of these carefully-crafted articles. Not that it might not be profitable to do so, but such a critique would be of a more academic nature and fit better in our own Theological Journal.
Our purpose in calling attention to these two articles is simple. Both have to do with Bavinck and his view of the covenant. And in both it becomes plain that neither writer wants to allow this fellow named H. Hoeksema, nor for that matter his theological disciples, to be counted in the line of the covenant perspective of the honored and esteemed H. Bavinck.
Bavinck’s covenant view? To be honored.
Hoeksema’s? No, never.
This is not so difficult to demonstrate from the articles, as we shall see.
But before we do so, let me say that I had begun to wonder whether I was not becoming a bit paranoid.
Two years ago we picked up a volume of selected writings by a certain Dr. W. Young entitled Reformed Thought. It proved a stimulating read. Young is of vintage Presbyterian convictions. What especially caught our attention was a chapter entitled “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism” (cf. SB, vol. 88, Feb. 1–March 15). There, and again in later chapters, we came across the same interesting (and, I must admit, disappointing) perspective we now come across in the MAJT.
Though Young did not have much to say about Bavinck and his covenantal view, when Bavinck was mentioned, he was put in the best of lights. A theologian whose covenant view was to be distinguished from Abraham Kuyper’s. Let’s focus on the differences! But when it came to Hoeksema, sharpest of criticism directed towards his views. Let’s focus on the similarities!
This second fellow to be put not only in the camp of the neo-Calvinists, but also banished to the camp of the hyper-covenantists.
Do not misunderstand me.
We are not complaining that theologians speak critically of Hoeksema and his views. Dr. Young and others have the perfect right to take sharp issue with Hoeksema on whatever doctrine they wish, especially if they are convinced that Hoeksema’s views are somehow unscriptural or go contrary to the creeds and historic Reformed doctrine. Just as I reserve for myself the right, and even the calling, to take sharp issue with Young, or even the venerable Luther himself, if I am honestly convinced of the same concerning them on a doctrine.
If you cannot stand the heat of theological give and take, then you best get out of the theological kitchen.
But that Hoeksema, for his view of the covenant and of how believers are to view their children (as having spiritual life from little on) should be banished to the camp of the hyper-covenantists, whereas Bavinck, when it comes to his covenant view, is spared such an ‘endorsement’ is another matter.
As if, when it comes to the covenant of grace, there is some great disparity between Hoeksema’s view and that of Bavinck.
On the issue of common grace—disparity, and in the most fundamental way. Or, again, on the issue of the covenant of works—little in common.
But when it comes to the main lines of Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s covenantal doctrine as it pertains to the life of God-triune Himself and then as it governs God’s relationship with believers? The view of the one to be acknowledged as “solidly Reformed,” and that of the other not? The one to be banished to the camp of the “hypers,” the other not?
To be sure, Hoeksema did not simply regurgitate Bavinck’s covenant view, taking it over ‘lock, stock, and barrel.’ He offered his own refinement of the pactum salutis notion. True enough. But as to the main lines of the doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant as it finds its source in God-triune’s intra-personal life as a life of fellowship first of all, and then the covenant of grace flowing out of, being a revelation of, that inner, personal, Trinitarian bond and tying in closely with the elect and their election, who can miss the striking similarities between the two?
And, in addition, an emphasis on the covenant’s unconditional character both as to its establishment and its maintenance.
Two Hermans of the same convictions.
As one of them stated, “The covenant of grace is the channel by which the stream of election flows towards eternity.”
Which Herman was it?
It could have come from the pen of the one as well as the other. This was Hoeksema’s language as well as Bavinck’s.
There can be little doubt where Hoeksema found the main lines of his covenant view, namely, in Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek.
That should not be so hard to see.
Unless, of course, one does not want to see that.
And it is in that direction that the evidence in the MAJT points.
Relying on subtleties and nuances that would make the scholastics of old proud, Reformed writers are doing their best (worst?) to drive a wedge between Hoeksema’s covenantal views and those of Bavinck.
One wonders, in the name of ‘nuance,’ why?
Later we intend to come back to further comments made by Dr. Young relating to the issue of “hyper-covenantism.” Our reason is, he lays at its door a large measure of the guilt of the great apostasy that devoured Abraham Kuyper’s denomination (the GKN) in the century past.
No small charge.
And he may be right.
‘Father Abraham’ Kuyper’s covenant view largely to blame for the deadness that came to infect and kill the life and witness of the GKN in the twentieth century—that is the assessment of many.
To which we respond: Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t.
Or maybe it was something else also? Maybe it was largely due to his . . . ?
But this is the more immediate question: What about Bavinck’s view? Is it to be put into the same camp as Kuyper’s view? And is Bavinck’s view to be charged then with the same evil, the same faith-stifling, life-killing virus?
If not, why not?
And if Bavinck’s view is exempt from such a charge, why isn’t Hoeksema’s?
Questions that certain Drs. of Divinity should consider!
Something to which we intend to return.
But first, as we stated, there are a couple of articles in recent MAJTs that we want to comment on, articles that make plain there are those who are interested in driving as large a wedge between Bavinck’s covenantal doctrine and that of Hoeksema as they can.
Apparently they do not want any to conclude that when it comes to the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace, Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s are closely related.
One such theologian is Dr. O’Donnell III, as becomes plain in his article “Not Subtle Enough” (MAJT 2011).
O’Donnell’s article is in the main occasioned by a dissertation written in 1990 by a certain Bertus Loonstra on the pactum salutis, in which dissertation Loonstra summarizes Bavinck’s formulation and then “…criticizes Bavinck for allegedly opening the door to extreme formulations of the doctrine” (MAJT 2011, p. 89).
Note the phrase “extreme formulation.” When Reformed theologians use that phrase these days, we need not guess who might be one of those identified with the adjective “extreme.” Yes, per usual, this Hoeksema fellow, though Loonstra lists Schilder and Heyns as well. Loonstra charges Bavinck with “ontologizing” the covenant, that is, grounding it in God’s nature and triune-being, which Loonstra considers to be grave error.
What is significant is that O’Donnell is not happy with Loonstra’s conclusion. Not because he is not convinced that Hoeksema (along with Schilder and some others) are “guilty” of this “ontologizing” of God’s covenant—he is, thoroughly. And not because he is not convinced that to “ontologize” God’s covenant is grave, even fatal, theological error—he is, just like Loonstra.
But because O’Donnell will not have this unflattering label attached to Bavinck’s covenantal description of God triune, and as a result, being charged with being the father of this ‘grievous’ view taught by others down the road.
Hoeksema’s view and that of others so labeled? Oh, yes. But not Bavinck. Bavinck was too ‘nuanced’ to have been ‘guilty’ of this view.
Wherever it was that Hoeksema might have gotten his covenant view, it was not from Bavinck.
This is O’Donnell’s thesis. He seeks to distance Bavinck’s ‘well-nuanced’ covenant view (due to his ‘subtle’ covenantal distinctions) as far from the covenant views of Hoeksema and these others as possible.
According to O’Donnell, the trouble with Loonstra and some others (who obviously see this undeniable connection between Bavinck’s and Hoeksema’s view) is that they were not subtle enough (hence, the title of the article) in discerning the distinctions between Bavinck’s ‘well-nuanced’ view and those of these later Reformed theologians. If they had, Loonstra and others would never have made the blunder of charging Bavinck with being the theological predecessor of Hoeksma, Schilder, and others when it comes to the covenant.
Such is O’Donnell’s contention.
Why does O’Donnell consider this “ontologizing” of the covenant, grounding it in God’s own nature and triune being, so serious an error? What dangerous leaven is he convinced it contains?
In O’Donnell’s own words, such a view “…when pressed to its logical conclusion, would deny the contingency [!] of creation and the pure grace [!] of the re-creation [the salvation of the world through the redemption of man].” In other words, he views it as being an impingement on the sovereign freedom of God.
If the essence of the covenant is God’s own inner-trinitarian life, then He is compelled of inner necessity to work the covenant of grace in a certain way, along certain lines. It is all logically pre-determined. Scholasticism rules again. And then what choice does God have in the matter? It all flows inevitably, necessarily, from His inner essence. Then where is Divine freedom and free grace?
Personally I am of the opinion that what’s behind O’Donnell’s great grievance with Hoeksema’s covenantal view in the name of protecting the freedom of God really has to do with seeking to protect a notion of God and covenant that would allow for paradoxes when it comes to God’s decrees and works. As if the only notion (theology) about God that is to be countenanced is one that preserves this precious Van Tilian paradox mentality that has so captured Reformed “theologizing” these days.
This ‘ontologizing’ of the covenant would rule out justifying paradoxes in the name of divine freedom.
But that is another matter.
Some may charge us with being too suspicious these days.
And yet, on this issue, we don’t think so.
Regardless, O’Donnell, we are convinced, is wrong. Not because he and others apply to Hoeksema’s covenantal view the word ‘ontological’ (though we have little fondness for this philosophic word with its implied charge of scholasticism, which is undoubtedly why it was chosen), but because they charge Hoeksema’s view (and Bavinck’s as well, whether O’Donnell wants to acknowledge it or not) with impinging on the freedom, the sovereign freedom, of God.
A valid charge?
Next article we will explain why not and then make some remarks on Venema’s article as well.