The Clarion is “The Canadian Reformed Magazine.” For those of our readers who may be unacquainted with the church situation in Canada, the Canadian Reformed Churches are the Canadian form of the so-called Liberated Churches (Reformed Churches maintaining Article 31 of the Church Order) in the Netherlands. Sometimes they are identified as the Schilder group. (I do not like such a name, even as I do not like our denomination to be called the Hoeksema group.) After the Liberation in the Netherlands, which was precipitated by the unjust discipline of Dr. K. Schilder and many others by the General Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in 1942, ff., our Protestant Reformed Churches had considerable contact with Dr. Schilder and with the Liberated Churches of the Netherlands; and for a while there was official contact between the two denominations aimed at discussing the possibility of a sister-church relationship. As far as Canada is concerned, there was a large influx of Dutch immigrants to that country following World War II. For a time immigrants from the Liberated Churches were advised to make contact with our Protestant Reformed Churches; and there were even two PR congregations organized (in Hamilton and in Chatham, Ontario). All of this came to an end, however, with the adoption of the Declaration of Principles by our churches, as well as with the controversy which swept our churches and came to a climax in 1953 in connection with these matters. Since that time the Liberated immigrants in Canada have gone their own ecclesiastical way and have established their own denomination, known as the Canadian Reformed Churches. Also the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands have shunned us since that time, and there has been no further contact. I refer, of course, to official contact; the unofficial contact of exchange of the Standard Bearer for the Clarion and De Reformatie has continued for many years.
It is probably an over-simplification to say this, but for the sake of brevity in furnishing this background information I will say it nevertheless. At issue between our churches was—and is—the truth concerning the covenant, and especially the truth of the covenant with reference to the children of believers and, in connection therewith, the significance of baptism. Briefly put, the Liberated hold to what we sometimes call the Heynsian view of the covenant, which involves a general, conditional promise to all the children of believers, to all baptized infants.
Parenthetically, let me remark for the benefit of some of our Australian friends who are concerned about this question, the very fact that the Liberated disagree with us so strongly on this matter and accuse us of “building a whole dogmatic system on the point of election” should also be an indication that we do not teach anything like what is sometimes called “automatic grace.” You see, we hold to neither a general promise for all that are baptized nor presupposed regeneration, but insist (with Scripture and our confessions) that the lines of election and reprobation cut right across the generations of believers. I do hope to write on this matter sometime in connection with that question of “automatic grace,” but that will have to wait for a more convenient season.
Now back to the subject at hand.
Clarion (Nov. 4, 1978) devoted almost three pages in its “Press Review” (by Rev. J. Geertsema) to criticize what I wrote on various occasions over the past three years in our “Question Box” on the subject of covenant-breaking and covenant-breakers. My response was delayed because there were other subjects which needed attention in these columns.
It came as a bit of a surprise to find this critique inClarion. Since the events of the early 1950s the Liberated brethren have not shown much inclination to discuss these matters with us, either in Canada or in the Netherlands. After the De Wolf group departed from us in ’53, all discussion was broken off; and the article now under discussion is one of the few, if not the first, to make any further reference to this subject. For my part, I welcome discussion of this important truth any time. Personally, I would even welcome official discussions between our churches. However, such discussion would have to be far more basic than that offered by Mr. Geertsema; and it would have to follow a different method and evince a different tone. For one thing, in the articles quoted I was not discussing the truth of the covenant in general, but merely answering a reader’s questions about the specific subject of covenant-breaking. In the course of that discussion I assumed a certain knowledge of related truths on the part of my readers; and in more than one instance I made only brief, passing reference to various important facets of the truth. If Geertsema wishes to have discussion (or debate) on the entire subject of the covenant, fine! But then let us have in-depth discussion, not critique on the basis of some passing references. For another thing, I do not like to have words put in my mouth and to be misrepresented. When brother Geertsema does that—as he does in his article—then he is not really criticizing me and my views, but fighting a straw man; and that, of course, is both dishonest and futile.
Hence, by all means let us have open and thoroughdiscussion.
Nevertheless, I will reflect on and respond to some of the points made in Clarion‘s “Press Review.”
Near the end of his article, Rev. Geertsema writes as follows:
I also cannot understand that the struggle of the liberation in The Netherlands, and all the articles and books of Prof. K. Schilder and others from that time, did not convince the Protestant Reformed people that they are wrong with their idea of a covenant with only the elect, and that they are not less wrong with their unscriptural idea of a real covenant besides a “covenant sphere” for those children who belong to believing parents, but are not elected. . . .
There is a reference to history here, specifically to the struggle of the Liberation in the Netherlands and to the related writings of Dr. K. Schilder and others. Geertsema expresses amazement that these things did not convince us of the wrongness of our views.
Now I wish to assure the writer that we are well acquainted with that history and the writings. Many of those writings were dealt with in the pages of theStandard Bearer after the Liberation. A bit later, especially in connection with our Declaration of Principles, there was no little polemical exchange between De Reformatie and the Standard Bearer. But it was precisely many of those writings which convinced us of the wrongness of the Liberated ideas about the covenant and the promise, and which led eventually to our adoption of the Declaration of Principles in an effort to insure that our Protestant Reformed Churches would not be invaded by the heresy of a general, conditional promise. Personally, I can recall many of the events of those years; and though I was not yet in the ministry at the beginning of that history, I lived very close to the events of that time; and in the later history involving these matters I played an active part.
But let me recall some of the earlier events.
First of all, it should be remembered that ever since 1939 (the time of his first visit to this country) our churches and our leaders had a goodly measure of respect, friendship, and sympathy for Dr. Schilder. And I believe that as a result of the contacts in 1939, Dr. Schilder had gained in respect and friendship for us, and also in sympathy for our views and position and struggle over against the Christian Reformed Church in the matter of the Three Points of Common Grace. During World War II, of course, we largely lost contact, though I recall that we made efforts through government channels to inquire concerning his welfare prior to United States entry into the war.
As soon as communications were re-established following the national liberation of the Netherlands, we began to hear about the schism in the Netherlands. We heard of the decisions of the Synod of Sneek-Utrecht concerning the various doctrinal differences prevalent in the Netherlands already in the 1930s; and we were, of course, especially interested in their decisions about common grace and about the burning issue of the covenant. We heard about the hierarchical actions of the General Synod in suspending such esteemed men as Dr. Schilder and Dr. S. Greijdanus and many others. We heard ab5ut the Act of Liberation and the fact that the Liberated movement was growing by leaps and bounds. And, very frankly, our Protestant Reformed sympathies were with the Liberated, not only because of our friendship toward Schilder, but even more because of the unjust and hierarchical actions of the Synod in their high-handed and wholesale expelling of officebearers. Remember, too, that we knew something about hierarchy by experience from our own history of 1924!
But we were intensely inquisitive about one matter: what were the views of the Liberated theologians about the covenant and baptism over against the position of the synodicals.
Well do I remember when we began to get reliable information. When the first numbers of De Reformatie reached us after the war, we were simply flabbergasted. I well remember that the late Rev. Vos visited my father with one of those early numbers completely blue-penciled, marking those sections which made it plain that the Liberated churches were addicted to what is known among us as the Heynsian view of the covenant, the view of a general, conditional promise of God for all children of believers. The only element of Heyns’s view which we did not discover in De Reformatie at that time was the element of a sufficient grace to all, children of believers either to accept or reject the objective right to the blessings of salvation bestowed upon them in the promise, an element specifically spelled out in Prof. Heyns’s Catechetics.
You must remember that Heyns’s view was and is anathema to us of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It was so long before your Liberation. Herman Hoeksema disagreed with it already as a theological student under Heyns’s instruction. Remember, too, that it was principally Heyns’s view which was adopted in the doctrine of the well-meant offer of salvation in 1924—a matter intimately connected with the whole position of our churches.
Further, you must remember that from 1945 forward (and you can read of it in the Standard Bearer, Volume 22) we made it abundantly plain by public and private writing that we stood diametrically opposed to this Heynsian view and that there was no room for it in our Protestant Reformed Churches. Incidentally, Prof. Heyns was even quoted at length and with approval by the Rev. R. H. Bremmer in De Reformatie at that time (Vol. 20, No. 51).
It was under these circumstances that we nevertheless gave Dr. Schilder a sympathetic hearing in 1947-48. He preached and lectured. We held two lengthy conferences with him. We questioned him, and he answered in his typical Schilderian manner. And while at least some of us were convinced that he personally was and intended to be Reformed, we were not at all convinced that the Liberated view .of the covenant was not Arminianism applied to the covenant.
Things developed, both here and in the Netherlands. To make a long story short, the result was the present situation in which the Liberated and the Protestant Reformed continue in sharp disagreement and in separate church existence.
But I want to emphasize that we are well acquainted with the Liberated position and writings. It is not that we are ignorant. Nor is it that Schilder and others did not make their position clear. We know the Liberated ideas of the covenant and the promise, and we want nothing of them. We hold them to be contrary to Scripture and the confessions. And if we are to discuss these things thoroughly—and I suggest that this be done with equal space inClarion and Standard Bearer—then it must be on the basis of Scripture and the confessions, too. Perhaps Clarion could begin by demonstrating that Heyns’s view, or Prof. Veenhof’s view as spelled out concerning the general promise in his Appel, is consistent with our Baptism Form.
A discussion of these matters, however, cannot be fruitful as long as misrepresentations and “straw men” are presented, as is done by Geertsema in his “Press Review.”
There are several such misrepresentations.
In the first place, Rev. Geertsema writes: “The Protestant Reformed view of the covenant is, according to what Prof. Hoeksema writes, God’s covenant with the elect.”
Now I will not hide the fact that we want to hear the heart-beat of election in all the structure of the truth, including especially the truth of the covenant. I am not ashamed of this. Nor am I afraid of the bogey-man presented later in Geertsema’s article when he writes: “In my opinion this is wrong (i.e., with our view): a whole theology or dogmatic system is built up on the point of election, and everything is pressed into the framework of this election.” That kind of charge is sheer nonsense. But to write that “the Protestant Reformed view of the covenant is . . . God’s covenant with the elect” is not only gross over-simplification, but it is seriousmisrepresentation. What is the covenant? What is its nature? Is it a means to an end, a way to a goal, as so many theologians present it? Or is it the end itself, and, as Bavinck once put it, “the very essence of all religion.” You see, .when you merely say “covenant with the elect,” you have not yet said anything about the nature of that covenant itself. And the latter subject is important, also for the question of covenant-breaking.
In the second place, Geertsema suggests that I did not answer the question concerning covenant-breaking. Writes he:
Now a difficulty arises for me: the Bible speaks about breaking the covenant. This breaking of the covenant can only be done by those who are placed in the covenant relation with God. Can we then break an eternal covenant?
However, two things should be noted in this connection: 1) I do not concede and I did not write that the covenant can be broken only by those who are placed in the covenant relation with God. This is Geertsema’s assumption, not my position. 2) The whole thrust of my articles on this subject was explicitly that we cannot break the eternal covenant in the sense of severing the covenant relationship. An eternal covenant can be violated, sinned against, transgressed against; but it is in its very nature’as an eternal covenant that its bond of friendship cannot be broken.
In the third place, Geertsema devotes two or three paragraphs to suggesting that I deny the unity of the covenant, separate between the old covenant and the new, and even find two covenants in the old dispensation, viz., a national covenant with Israel plus a covenant with the elect. He further suggests that I admit that the national covenant could be broken—again in the sense of not merely transgressing against it but in the sense of severing its bond. Again, however, Geertsema sucks this out of his thumb, not out of my articles. I repeat: if there was anything plain in all three articles, it was my insistence that the covenant cannot be broken in the sense that the relationship can be severed, and that, too, precisely because it is God’s eternal covenant. Meanwhile, the Rev. Geertsema should seriously confront and answer the question: how can an eternal covenant (as the Baptism Form speaks of it) or an everlasting covenant (as Scripture repeatedly speaks of it) be broken?
Finally, it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest as Geertsema does that the implication of our presentation of the covenant is that God says to some children in baptism (i.e., to the reprobate children): “To you I give nothing. For you your baptism is a fake baptism, an empty form.” I assure the brother that he can find nothing of the kind in our Protestant Reformed writings on this subject. This presentation is his, not ours. And it is an illegitimate conclusion on his part from our view. I also insist, however, that any view which teaches that baptism seals a general, conditional promise to all that are baptized is contrary to Scripture and the creeds and is just as guilty of holding forth to believing parents a vain hope as is the view of presupposed regeneration.
The Lord willing, I will devote a separate article to the subject of my conception of a historic sphere of the covenant, to which Rev. Geertsema takes such strong exception. In conclusion, I must express wonderment at the things which Geertsema writes. I do not understand how he can write them if he has seriously read and studied the voluminous Protestant Reformed writings on the subject under discussion.