Previous article in this series: February 1, 2013, p. 197.
As stated in our previous editorial, it is our intention (eventually) to offer a brief critique 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 in Mid-America Seminary. An article of interest to us as much for the subject matter, Calvin and the Free Offer, as for the fact that the Protestant Reformed perspective and the name of H. Hoeksema loom rather large in the article.
We will return to this in time.
But first, we want to finish commenting on that little (translated) treatise written by the venerable Herman Witsius (1636-1708) entitled On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism in the Case of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under the Covenant (found in the MAJT 17, 2006 issue).
This is an important historical document, not only because of the high esteem Witsius had both in the Reformed and Presbyterian circles of his day, as well as the conclusions he reached on matters related to controversies surrounding infant baptism, but also because, as stated in the foreword to this treatise, Witsius “. . . exposes modern readers to a host of erudite and gifted Reformed theologians of an earlier era (though no longer well-known today) . . . .” (MAJT 17, p. 125)
For Witsius and his contemporaries the question of baptism’s efficacy arose in large part because there were some Reformed who, in the interests of retaining it as a sacrament and guarding against turning baptism into a mere ritual, insisted that it had to convey something to every child baptized if it were to be maintained as a meaningful means of grace. And so, according to these theologians, the efficacy of baptism for infants is that at the time of baptism it was used by God to work some kind of spiritual benefit in baptized infants. For some this meant in all the infants baptized, for others, only in the elect infants. But according to both views, newness of life waited upon an infant’s baptism.
In other words, regeneration hinging on one’s baptism.
Shades of Rome!
Such is one side of the errant view of infant baptism that Witsius addressed and refuted.
We explicitly raise this issue in light of that heresy that is so bedeviling Reformed covenantal thinking today, namely, that of the Federal Vision. As though this perspective is something new. Many loose on Reformed pulpits and in seminaries today would have us look at the Federal Vision perspective that way, as if its proponents are bringing to the fore something new—new biblical, covenantal insights into how we are to view baptism and infants and what the Reformed view of baptism should be, namely, it conveys a covenantal grace (though not necessarily of a lasting, saving sort) to all to whom it is applied.
And because this view is so new, it should be viewed as a development of biblical, Reformed covenantal thinking, and not as an old notion or old heresy revived.
Witsius’ treatise makes plain that this new teaching loose today is as old an errant view as the seventeenth Gospel
century, one addressed and dismissed by good covenantal theologians centuries ago.
As Witsius makes plain, this was a perspective loose in his day.
There are not wanting, I admit, theologians even of the highest name who give a somewhat different account of these matters [what baptism means for infants—kk], maintaining that a certain kind [!] of regeneration and justification is not only signified but bestowed upon all [!] the infants of covenantal persons without exception, although it may not be infallibly connected with salvation inasmuch as they may fall [!] from it by their own sin after they have grown up. (MAJT., p. 132)
Whereupon Witsius mentions some theologians with quotes from their writings to demonstrate this was their view, namely, a certain kind of regeneration and of justification, which, though for a time it saves a person, one may lose later in life as he breaks and falls out of the covenant into which he was once put by baptism.
Federal Vision error and denial of the preservation of the saints all over again.
And this is to be distinguished from Arminianism as rejected by Dordt how?
Of particular interest to Witsius was the name of John Davenant.
Concerning him Witsius writes:
But of all the expositors of these opinions, the most acute is John Davenant, a one time deputy of the English Church to the Synod of Dort . . . . In a letter [to an Angli can Bishop] . . . he contends that the blood of Christ is so far applied in every infant [!] duly baptized that original sin is remitted—whence he teaches that all such infants are in a certain sense [!] not only adopted and justified, but also regenerated [!] and sanctified. But the justification, regeneration, [and] adoption that he grants as suited to baptized infants is not altogether the same with that justification, regeneration, adoption, which, in the question of the perseverance of the saints, we [of the Canons of Dort vintage] maintain to be at no time lost. [For Davenant] [i]t only avails so far as to place them in a state of salvation conformably with their infantile condition . . . [which later] in consequence of coming short of their baptismal engagements [emphasis mine—kk] ceases to be sufficient for their salvation as adults (pp. 133-4).
For the words we italicized above one might just as well substitute the words “in consequence of coming short of their conditional covenantal works and obligations,” and then sign the name of some Federal Vision adherent to it.
The Federal Vision men are simply teaching a view as old as J. Davenant—a baptismal regeneration for all born to covenantal parents (but not necessarily of the same caliber as the one that abides in those eternally elect), a regeneration of the Spirit that can be lost.
Certain saints do not persevere unto eternal life.
In other words, for some, a sovereign election unto and into Christ’s grace is only temporary!
In the name of what is Reformed, try wrapping your mind around that one once.
Welcome once again to the land of paradox.
Significantly, already back in the 1600s a theologian of the stature of Witsius rejected this view.
Who can deny that these are the acute and learned discussions of very erudite men? To me, however, if I may be allowed to give an opinion, they seem not altogether sound, and indeed the whole of these excellent men come to this: that while they get rid of certain difficulties, they involve themselves in others not less serious (p. 134).
As mild as Witsius’ above remarks are in distancing himself from such men and their view, what follows these remarks are three pages of shrewd, sharp refutation. Beginning with:
For, in the first place, by what word of Scripture can they prove that an application of the blood of Christ is made to any man in the remission of original sin, even to the effecting of a certain [!] justification, regeneration, and adoption—such an application as may suffice for his salvation in a certain condition of life—while that man has not been given to Christ by the eternal destination of the Father. . .? (pp. 134-5).
And then, in the course of his refutation of this covenant view, Witsius makes a most interesting and significant statement:
Nor must we omit to observe what is here of no small consequence, that the promises of the covenant, including everything it embraces, are not conditional [!] but absolute. For in the covenant God promises to bestow even those qualifications that are to be regarded as the prerequisites [emphasis ours—kk] of its ultimate and complete fruition (; ) (pp. 136-7).
How interesting. Qualifications that are commonly considered prerequisites of the promises of the covenant. What qualifications and prerequisites does he have in mind? What else but faith and obedience of life? But now not as conditional to the promises (something outside of what is promised by the promise), but as part of that which is promised.
Faith, then, not as a condition to the promise received, but as part of what God by covenant in the Old Testament promised to work in the New Testament kingdom age. Read the Jeremiah passages.
And then Witsius goes on to speak of “. . . [Christ] who has merited for his people not only eternal life, but likewise all those benefits [!] without which that life could not [even] be obtained.”
This back in the 1600s.
How consistent Witsius was when it came to working out this statement in his larger work, The Economy of the Covenant, is not our concern here. What is significant is that Witsius realized that in order to deal effectively with the Davenant-type error, the truth as stated above was vital to his refutation of it.
The point is, what we as Protestant Reformed Churches have been maintaining over against the contemporary conditional covenant view (as sharpened by our covenant controversy of 1953) is not something new. It has been an integral part of the controversy over the centuries.
And this brings us to the point that we in our February 1 article indicated we intended to demonstrate in this article, namely, proof of Witsius’ position on how believers are to view their covenant seed, namely, as recipients of grace and spiritual life from little on, beginning already in the womb.
Witsius wanted nothing to do with the notion that elect infants are to be viewed as unregenerate and unsaved until they are old enough to give a credible confession of faith. Old school Princetonian Presbyterian he was not.
His position is clear.
I proceed: Not only is it in the freedom of God to bestow the grace of regeneration upon elect infants prior to the rite of baptism, but it is to be believed that this is the course he usually [!] pursues (p. 147).
And then a bit later, this most interesting quote:
There can be little doubt that this doctrine of the regeneration of infants . . . is the received view of the Belgic church, in whose baptismal liturgy the following question is put to parents when they present their children for baptism: “Do you acknowledge that our children, though conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all manner of misery, even to condemnation itself, are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of his church ought to be baptized?” [emphasis Witsius’]. To this question an affirmative answer is required, and this they set forth as the opinion of those who hold that the initial regeneration of elect infants under the covenant precedes their baptism. I acknowledge that with those who maintain this opinion I am so far at one (pp. 150-1).
Why, you ask, is what some long-dead Dutch theologian wrote on this issue centuries ago of any importance to us?
Because one of the charges that have been regularly thrown our way is that the view of the Protestant Reformed Churches on the covenant is somehow novel to the Reformed church world, an extreme position of a certain theologian dominated by scholastic tendencies—logic, logic, logic, with no room for paradoxes and certainly not well “nuanced.”
And let us state here already that the word “nuanced” is fast becoming, we are convinced, the new word replacing “paradox.” You are faced with a doctrinal position that differs from yours, and an argument that logically seems airtight, and hence difficult to refute? Well, that may be, but it can yet be dismissed on the grounds that it is not “well nuanced”! As if that is now the final word in theological debates: Who has shown himself to be the best nuanced?
Peter, Paul, James, and John were nuanced? That’s what the apostles strove to be?
Clarity is what comes to mind. Not, “Here is the gospel and its truths. Now let’s find how finely we can nuance it to the everlasting perplexity of generations to follow us.”
Now, where was I?
Oh, yes, those identified with the supposedly novel ideas of this theologian governed by scholastic tendencies, namely, a man named Hoeksema. And then the calumny that follows: therefore, those who have continued to promote such views are to be dismissed as of a sectarian spirit, because they have adopted the views of a theologian whose extreme covenantal views cut him and his adherents off from the thinking of the church and mainline Reformed theologians of the past.
With the recent translation of Bavinck’s Dogmatics, it is coming to light that that is not the case.
At least it should be.
And this little treatise by Witsius simply underscores that fact.
We commend the MAJT for their reprinting it.
Next time we will reflect on some interesting treatments and readings of Bavinck’s covenantal views found in recent MAJTs.