Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2007, p. 34 (special issue on the Afscheiding).
The Radical Departure of Pieters and Kreulen
In 1861, two ministers, K.J. Pieters and J.R. Kreulen, introduced into the Dutch Reformed churches of the Secession of 1834 a doctrine of the covenant that was both new to these churches and a radical departure from the accepted doctrine of the “fathers of the Secession.” The two preachers set forth their novel doctrine in a book titled Infant Baptism.¹
The purpose of the book, and the fundamental characteristic of the covenant doctrine it advocated, was the cutting loose of the covenant from God’s decree of election. The book denied that election governs the covenant of grace, particularly with regard to the baptized children of believing parents. Election does not determine membership in the covenant of grace; the objects of the gracious covenant promise; inheritance of the blessings of the covenant; or abiding in the covenant, so that the baptized child at last enjoys eternal life in heaven.
According to the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, God establishes the covenant of grace with all the baptized children alike, so that all alike are in covenant communion with God. He extends His gracious covenant promise to all the children alike. All the children alike are heirs of the covenant blessings. But all the baptized children alike can fall out of the covenant, separate themselves from covenantal union with God in Christ, become objects of the dreadful curse of the covenant instead of the gracious promise, forfeit the covenant blessings, and perish everlastingly in hell.
For election does not govern the covenant.
Already on page six of their book, the two preachers in the denomination that was then called the Christian Separated Reformed Church² denied that the Reformed Baptism form speaks of “an eternal covenant membership on the part of the elect, in the head, Jesus Christ” and that the phrase, “sanctified in Christ,” in the first question of the Baptism form refers to “the elect in Christ.”³
Election simply has no place in this supposedly Reformed doctrine of the covenant and infant baptism.
So much is this the case that when the authors were compelled by their theological foes in the churches of the Secession to reckon with the teaching of Romans 9:6-13, they explained Romans 9in such a way that election has nothing to do with the salvation of some baptized children in distinction from others who go lost. Pieters and Kreulen posed the question this way: “Is not the universality of the promise for the entire visible church in conflict . . . with that which the apostle Paul teaches in Romans 9:6-13?” Their answer was that there is no conflict between the universal, gracious promise taught by themselves and the apostle’s doctrine in Romans 9, because “the gracious promise given by God to Abraham’s seed in His covenant did not absolutely and unconditionally guarantee participation in the blessings of the covenant.”4
The problem both for Paul and for Pieters and Kreulen was the perishing of so many Israelites in light of the covenant promise of God that He would be the God of Abraham’s seed. Search the passage as they might, the two Dutch theologians could not find election in Romans 9 as the solution to the problem, although election accompanied by reprobation is the apostle’s solution: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand” (v. 11). Rather, they found the solution in a conditional promise, about which the apostle says not one word. The implication is that the reason why some children of Israel were saved was not election, but their own performance of the condition upon which the promise depends for its fulfillment.
The covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen utterly banished divine election from the baptism of children and therefore from the covenant. “Let us then regarding Baptism forget about eternal election and establish that the promise of the covenant is bestowed and offered as the revealed counsel of God and refers to every baptized [child] in the visible church without any exception.”5
The goal of this rigorous rejection of election, as also the necessary implication, was the universalizing of the grace—the saving grace—of the covenant. In the covenant theology of Pieters and Kreulen, God is gracious to all the baptized children alike, indeed to all the members of the visible church, including many who nevertheless perish. This doctrine is, on its very face, the contradiction of the fundamental Reformed doctrine of irresistible, or efficacious, grace, as authoritatively confessed in heads three and four of the Canons of Dordt—the doctrine that is at the heart of the Reformed controversy with Arminianism.
Desperately trying to maintain some semblance of Reformed orthodoxy, in a denomination of churches that only twenty-seven years earlier had separated and suffered on account of the gospel of sovereign grace, Pieters and Kreulen concocted a distinction between “objective” grace and “subjective” grace. “Subjective” grace, they argued, is the inner working of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart. The two Dutch ministers assured their readers that they denied “subjective” grace in all baptized children.
But they vehemently affirmed an “objective” grace of God toward all baptized children without exception. Although they never defined this “objective” grace, it is clear from their writings that God’s “objective” grace is His attitude, or disposition, of loving favor toward all baptized children. In this attitude of favor, God wills and desires the salvation of all children without exception. He expresses this will of salvation, and thus His “objective” grace, by promising and offering covenant salvation to all the children alike at their baptism.
God’s “objective” covenant grace does more, according to Pieters and Kreulen. It bestows covenant salvation upon all the children “objectively.” By the sacrament of Baptism, the “objective” grace of God makes all the children heirs of the salvation that is in Christ, especially the forgiveness of sins. Those who eventually perish therefore “disinherit” themselves. They “disinherit” themselves of the inheritance of covenant salvation that had very really been theirs.
Pieters and Kreulen were bold in their assertion that the (saving) covenant grace of God in Jesus Christ, be it “objective,” is toward and upon all the baptized children without exception.
Regarding the statement in the Reformed Baptism form concerning the infant children of believers, “so are they again received unto grace in Christ,” the two Dutch Reformed ministers insisted that the reference is to all the baptized children without exception, those who perish as well as those who are saved. They explicitly denied that this gracious reception of children is governed by “election in Christ.”6
All of the baptized children without exception are “heirs of the kingdom of God and His covenant in this sense that they possess this [the kingdom and its riches—DJE] in the promise and one day would possess it in actuality, if they do not despise this promise by unthankfulness and thus disinherit themselves by unbelief.”7
So rich, and real, is the covenant grace of God toward all baptized children, according to Pieters and Kreulen, that the wonderful blessings for which the prayer after Baptism of the Reformed Baptism form gives thanks to God are the possession, “objectively,” of all the children without exception. These are the blessings of the forgiveness of sins, reception by God through the Holy Spirit, and adoption unto children. Implied is that Christ has died for them all, for the prayer thanks God that “thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins, through the blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and received us through thy Holy Spirit, as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children.” In this prayer, the congregation thanks God “for the benefits which the Lord objectively gave and promised to her and to her children in His covenant.” Pieters and Kreulen meant all of the baptized children of the congregation without exception. 8
As circumcision testified to all Israelites in the Old Testament, Esau as well as Jacob, so Baptism seals and assures to all baptized children without exception that God “will[s] to give them . . . the benefits of salvation.”9
Although the covenant grace of Pieters and Kreulen is very broad—universal within the visible church—it is strikingly, and ominously, ineffectual. It assures the salvation of no one. Many baptized children to whom God is thus gracious lose this grace, fall out of the covenant of grace, and “disinherit” themselves of the riches of salvation bestowed on them by the gracious promise. Even though, in the language of the prayer after Baptism of the Reformed Baptism form (which Pieters and Kreulen applied to all baptized children), God forgave all their sins through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, they perish everlastingly in hell.
A Conditional Covenant
The reason, according to the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, is that the covenant, the covenant promise, membership in the covenant, and covenant salvation are conditional. They themselves raised the question, “Why,” in view of the universality of the covenant promises, “does it then happen that the great promises which are signified and sealed by Baptism remain unfulfilled in the majority of those who are baptized?” Their answer was the conditionality of all the promises:
The cause why this is the case [namely, that the covenant promises go unfulfilled most of the time—DJE] must absolutely not be sought in this, as if on God’s part the promises were given to the one and not to the other. But the cause is found in this, that the divine promises are not given, signified, and sealed unconditionally in Baptism.
The condition is the “demand” upon the baptized child that he believe and repent. “Without this [the performance by the child of the demanded condition—DJE], God is not held to His promises, to fulfill them.”10
Significantly, Pieters and Kreulen declared that conditionality is the very “nature of the covenant.” 11 Since the covenant with believers and their seed is essentially the same as the covenant with Abraham, also Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham was conditional. “This promise [to Abraham inGenesis 17:7—DJE]: I am your God and the God of your seed . . . as a covenant promiseinclude[ed] a demand and condition . . . . [It was not] absolute, so that it had to be fulfilled in Abraham’s descendants . . . .”12 For Pieters and Kreulen, the covenant was a contract between God and Abraham, between God and the believer, and between God and the baptized child—every baptized child—consisting of the conditional promise on God’s part and faith as the demanded condition on the child’s part. And the fulfillment of the promise depended upon the performance of the condition.
A few years after the publication of his and Kreulen’s book Infant Baptism, DominiePieters wrote a series of articles in De Bazuin, magazine of the churches of the Secession, on the meaning of Baptism according to Question and Answer 69 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In this explanation of the Catechism, Pieters taught that all baptized children alike are “in God’s covenant of grace . . . according to God’s gracious ordinance.” In His grace to all the children, God promises salvation to all the children alike “without distinction and without reservation.” “God,” Pieters continued, is “faithful and true,” so that He “does not speak empty words, but always surely and certainly fulfills what He promises,unless the baptized child upon growing up despises and rejects this divine promise by willful unbelief.”13
The covenant promise of God often goes unfulfilled!
In all these instances, God does not “surely and certainly” perform what He promises!
By His failure to fulfill His promise, He shows Himself unfaithful and false!
The reason for this appalling state of divine affairs is that in the covenant the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ is conditional. Salvation in the covenant depends, not upon the electing God, but upon the willing sinner—in this case, a totally depraved infant child.
This is the Arminian heresy, condemned as heresy once and for all by the Synod of Dordt, applied to the covenant.
Pieters and Kreulen themselves recognized that their covenant doctrine inevitably drew the charge of “Remonstrantism,” or Arminianism. They attempted to ward off the charge by distinguishing “condition” in their covenant doctrine from “condition” in Arminian theology. They contended that in their theology of the covenant “condition” is merely the means by which the covenant child receives salvation. They added that it is the grace of God that enables a child to perform the condition.
Does someone say, in this manner there comes a condition into the covenant of grace, without which one does not become a partaker of the salvation promised in the covenant? Be it so, still the question really is, what does one here understand by a condition? If you take this word in a legal sense for something that man does by his own power, something that gives him a merit, upon which and because of which he would become partaker of the benefit contained in the covenant of grace, who would then give his assent to such an idea? But if one understands by a condition the means that God ordained by which man becomes partaker of the salvation of the covenant in God’s way, and without which he shall never enjoy this [salvation], then faith is surely a condition in the sense of the means by which (not: because of which or on the basis of which) the member of the covenant becomes partaker of the blessings of the covenant of grace. It is only in this sense that we believe and teach, as the Reformed church has always done, that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace.14
It is true that orthodox Reformed theologians have referred to faith as the “condition” in the covenant, although the “Three Forms of Unity,” which were the creeds of Pieters and Kreulen, not only do not speak of faith as a “condition,” but also explicitly reject this teaching. The Canons of Dordt deny that faith is a condition either of election or of salvation. When orthodox Reformed theologians spoke of faith as the “condition” in the covenant, they meant that faith is the means by which God realizes His covenant promise to the elect and by which He gives the elect the blessings and salvation of the covenant.
But it is false that in the covenant theology of Pieters and Kreulen “condition” functions only as a means. On the contrary, “condition” functions radically differently from a means. In the covenant theology of Pieters and Kreulen, the condition (which is faith) renders a general, or common, or universal, gracious promise effectual in a few children; is the reason why some remain in the covenant, in distinction from many others who fall out of the covenant, and fall away; and accounts for the salvation of some, in the context of a gracious will, or desire, of God for the salvation of all.
In the covenant theology of Pieters and Kreulen, as in that of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the men of the Federal Vision, covenant grace, which is wider than election and, indeed, cut loose from election altogether, becomes effectual in the salvation of baptized children, not by the efficacious power of the grace itself, but by the performance of a condition by the child. Thus, the covenant, the covenant promise, and covenant salvation do, in fact, depend uponthe condition, that is, upon the will and work of the child.
It makes absolutely no difference whether the child performs the condition in his own strength or with the help of God’s grace. In both cases, the covenant depends upon the will and work of man.
In his biography of Anthony Brummelkamp, Melis te Velde notes that critics of Pieters and Kreulen in the churches of the Secession condemned the doctrine of the covenant of the two minis as “attributing a decisive role to the believing of man,” which is “Remonstrantism.”15 The critics were right.
Orthodox Reformed covenant theology, that is, a covenant theology that is faithful to the truth of sovereign grace as confessed by the Canons of Dordt, holds that God has a favorable covenantal attitude toward (“objective” grace) and works His covenantal salvation within (“subjective” grace) the elect children of godly parents. The means by which they know His favor and receive His saving operations is faith, which is itself a benefit of the covenant promise and worked in them by sovereign, particular covenant grace.
The covenant does not depend on the will of the covenant child, whether with or without the help of grace. Rather, the covenant depends squarely and wholly on the electing God.
The covenant is a covenant of grace.
It is not a covenant of condition.
“A New Opinion”
“Liberated” Reformed theologian C. Veenhof acknowledged that “with the publication of their book, the two Frisian preachers [Pieters and Kreulen] . . . opposed Van Velzen concerning the doctrine of covenant and baptism.”16 But Van Velzen’s doctrine of covenant and Baptism was that of the “fathers of the Secession,” and, therefore, that of the churches of the Secession, for almost thirty years, from the very beginning of the Secession.
A colleague of the two ministers, who opposed their covenant doctrine, H. Joffers, charged that the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen was “a new opinion” in the churches of the Secession. The reason for his own book on infant baptism, he informed his readers was that
in recent years a new opinion about infant baptism and the [Reformed Baptism] form has surfaced in our church [the Christian Separated Reformed Church], namely, that all children at baptism are objectively in the covenant of grace, which pernicious opinion seeks to rob the parents of the comfort and certainty that they are able to have from the baptism of their children.”17
Joffers referred, of course, to the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, recently introduced into the churches of the Secession by their book Infant Baptism.
Readers might have challenged Joffers’ charge that the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen was “pernicious.” Joffers was confident that none could challenge his description of the covenant doctrine of his two colleagues as a “new opinion” in the churches of the Secession.
In the person of Simon Van Velzen, the “fathers of the Secession” condemned the new and radically different covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, and defended the old covenant doctrine of the Secession of 1834—a doctrine in which election governs the covenant.
. . . to be continued.
¹ The full Dutch title is De Kinderdoop volgens de Beginselen der Gereformeerde Kerk in Hare Gronden, Toedieningen en Praktijk. Op Nieuw Onderzocht, Beoordeeld en van Vele Schijnbare Zwarigheden Ontheven (Franeker: T. Telenga, 1861). All quotations from this book, as well as from the other Dutch writings, in this article are my translations of the Dutch. The book has not been translated.
² The Dutch is Christelijke Afgescheidene Gereformeerde Kerk.
³ Pieters and Kreulen, Infant Baptism, 6.
4. Ibid., 28, 30.
5. Ibid., 48.
6. Ibid., 56.
7. Ibid., 58, 59.
8. Ibid., 67, 68 (the emphasis is theirs).
9. Ibid., 31.
10. Ibid., 48 (the emphasis is theirs).
12. Ibid., 28 (the emphasis is theirs). They added, confusing the issue, “even though it were the case that they [Abraham’s descendants—DJE] possessed neither faith nor godliness.” What Reformed theologian ever taught that the “absolute” (that is, unconditional) promise to Abraham would be fulfilled in Abraham’s seed “even if it were the case that they possessed neither faith nor godliness”? Orthodox Reformed theology teaches that God fulfilled the “absolute” (that is, unconditional) promise to Abraham by giving faith and godliness to the seed of Abraham. Besides, Pieters and Kreulen ignored that, according to Galatians 3:16, the “seed” of Abraham is Christ. Was also the covenant promise to Abraham concerning Christ conditional?
13. K.J. Pieters, “Eenige Opmerkingen over de 69e vr. En antw. Van den Katechismus,” De Bazuin [magazine of the Secession churches], 12 Mei 1865 (the magazine is not paginated; the emphasis is mine—DJE).
14. Pieters and Kreulen, Infant Baptism, 55 (the emphasis is theirs).
15. Melis te Velde, Anthony Brummelkamp (Barneveld: De Vuurbaak, 1988), 285.
16. C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing (Kampen: Kok, 1959), 66.
17. H. Joffers, De Kinderdoop, met zijn Grond en Vrucht (Kampen: S. Van Velzen Jr., 1865), 3 (the emphasis is his).