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Declaration of Principles

I just wanted to drop you a quick note re your series in the Standard Bearer on the Declaration of Principles. I have found them most interesting and edifying and they spurred me on to research the old series you mentioned by H. Hoeksema.

I do have one question you raised that I am hoping you could clarify for me. You make the point in part 4 [March 15, 2006, p. 268] that “the Declaration repudiates the notion that all the children that are baptized are regenerated.” However, we are constantly taught that the member of the congregation should “look upon” all the covenant children as believers unless and until they prove otherwise. Is not our view and that of Dr. Kuyper a logomachy? If not, where does the material difference lie?

Mark Brooks

Sauk Village, Illinois

RESPONSE:

Dear Mark, The questions you ask are frequently raised in discussions on the Reformed view of the covenant child. These are not easy questions.

I do not believe that our difference with Dr. Kuyper is merely a fight over words.

First of all, it is crucially important to remember that the teaching of Abraham Kuyper has to do with the ground for infant baptism. He contended that a true baptism conveys a sacramental grace at the moment of baptism by a special act of Christ. That grace can be conferred only to one who has faith. If the sacrament does not confer grace, it is not a real baptism. Since the church may only administer real baptisms, the church must assume that each of the children brought for baptism is a regenerated child. Dr. Kuyper, however, was not so naïve as to think that all these baptized children were indeed regenerated. He was aware that subsequent history would reveal that many were not. Nonetheless, for the sake of having a ground for administering infant baptism, he held to a presupposed regeneration for each child born to believers. This logical inconsistency is glaring. Many Reformed theologians have pointed out the impossibility of presupposing regeneration when it is plain from Scripture and life that many Esaus are born to believing parents.

The PRC do not teach presupposed regeneration, that is, do not base infant baptism on a presumption that the child is regenerated. As you indicated, the article reflects the teaching of the Declaration of Principles, which states: “We repudiate the teaching…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.” Later, the Declaration of Principles gives thetwofold ground for infant baptism as “the command of God and the fact that according to Scripture He established His covenant in the line of continued generations.”

The teaching to which you refer in the PRC is not the ground for infant baptism, but has to do with how believing parents view and how they deal with children born in the sphere of the covenant. It arises out of the ground for baptism, namely, that God gathers His church out of the line of continued generations. God gathers His church from the children of believers. Believing parents deny God’s covenant if they view their children as unbelievers. It would be tantamount to Abraham refusing to circumcise Isaac. Thus all believing parents are to deal with their children, and to treat them, as believers.

To consider this from another viewpoint, this manner of dealing with children corresponds with how we view fellow members in the church, namely, with the judgment of love taught by the Canons. “With respect to those who make an external profession of faith and live regular lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner” (Canons III, IV, 15). Although children have not yet made an explicit confession of faith, yet they are members of the church on this earth, and we are bound “to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner.”

In regard to how to view children of believers, the Protestant Reformed Churches have much in common with Abraham Kuyper. We do not view them as unbelievers.

In actual practice, however, I contend that there is often a significant difference in the working out of the position of the PRC and that of Abraham Kuyper. Presupposed regeneration assumes that the Holy Spirit has regenerated the child. A regenerated child is a saved child. Even if the child begins to manifest ungodliness, the parent may say, “We presume that he is regenerated. It may be that the seed of regeneration lies dormant in the heart of a child for years, but it is there.” That leads to false hope when a child begins to rebel against God.

On the other hand, it can also lead to bitterness against God if the baptized child dies in rebellion. Parents might become angry with God, who, according to the idea of presupposed regeneration, gave a virtual guarantee that the child was regenerated. Parents wrongly base their hopes on that presupposed regeneration, and blame God when it turns out not to be true. On the other hand, parents in the Protestant Reformed Churches treat their children as covenant children, as believers. They read the Bible with their children, teach them to pray and to sing praises. They admonish them to repent and obey God. All these activities enjoined upon the child are impossible for the child to do from the heart unless he is regenerated. This is where it might seem as though the PRC hold to the same position as Abraham Kuyper.

But parents do not presume that the Spirit’s work of regeneration has taken place in all their children. They do not assume that their children are saved. On the contrary, they call their children to turn from sin. They call them to conversion when their children walk in disobedience. And if one of their children brings upon them this horrible grief, of dying in rebellion against God, none of these parents comes to the minister with the accusation, “You taught us that he was regenerated.” Nor do they accuse God. They understand that God’s covenant with believers is a covenant of grace. God is not obligated to save any of our children. It is an act of infinite mercy and boundless grace when God saves even one of our children.

At the same time, parents know that God is pleased to gather His church from the children of believers. Thus they deal with, teach, admonish, and view their children, as believers. If that sounds as though we hold to presupposed regeneration, then I say once again, that Abraham’s Kuyper’s doctrine of presupposed regeneration was his basis for baptizing children of believers, not how children of believers are to be treated in their upbringing.

For a more detailed discussion of this, I highly recommend to the readers Rev. Herman Hoeksema’s work Believers and their Seed, and Prof. David Engelsma’s The Place of Children in the Covenant of God, both published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association.