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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2008, p. 150.

 

Controversy over the Covenant (concl.) 


Simon Van Velzen was not the only minister in the churches of the Secession in the Netherlands of 1834 to oppose the new covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen. A younger colleague, who had embraced the doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession” and was zealous for the gospel of grace, also condemned Pieters and Kreulen’s covenant doctrine as heretical. He was H. Joffers, minister of the Christian Separated [Dutch: Afgescheidene] Reformed Church at ‘s Gravenhage. Joffers criticized the doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen in a little book titled,Infant Baptism with its Ground and Fruit

With reference to the teaching of Pieters and Kreulen that many children to whom God makes His gracious, solemn promise of salvation are, in fact, not saved by the promise, Joffers charged that “these expositors fall into one of these two evils: [either] that God has bound the blessings of the covenant to conditions; or that these expositors present God as a deceiver, who promises something to many, but does not give [it to them].”²

To Joffers, as to the “fathers of the Secession,” the teaching that the covenant depends upon conditions was as grievous an evil as making God a deceiver.

Joffers pointed out that the doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen implied the falling away of those who were once in the covenant:

According to their view, members of the covenant fall out of the covenant and perish, which is not possible according to

Isaiah 54:10,

“For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee.”³

Fundamental in the controversy over the covenant in the churches of the Secession, as it is fundamental in the controversy over the covenant in Reformed churches today, was the explanation of the phrase in the Reformed Baptism form, “our children . . . are sanctified in Christ.” With all defenders of a conditional covenant, that is, a covenant that is not governed by election, Pieters and Kreulen explained the phrase as referring to all baptized children without exception. The holiness, therefore, cannot be the inner cleansing and consecration to God worked in the hearts of the infants by the Holy Spirit. Nor can it be the unique covenant holiness of the elect children in Jesus Christ, their head, as Van Velzen taught. Nevertheless, it is a real covenant holiness bestowed upon every baptized child, by virtue of the gracious covenant promise. Therefore, according to the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, it is a covenant blessing that can be lost. Pieters and Kreulen called this an “objective” holiness.

Joffers charged that this explanation of the first question of the Baptism form sins against the firmness of the covenant of grace and, therefore, against the faithfulness of the covenant God, for “an objective holiness that can be lost contradicts the firmness of the covenant of grace, according to Isaiah 54:10.”4

Joffers condemned the covenant doctrine of his two colleagues, which suspended the covenant and its salvation on conditions, taught the falling away of saints, and made God a liar, as heresy. The covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen, wrote Joffers, is “something new,” introduced by the devil, and [it] opens the way to a real and total apostasy from the covenant of grace, which is impossible according to Is. 54:10 and Jer. 31:33.”5

What especially distressed Joffers was that the covenant doctrine of the two ministers robbed God’s people of all comfort of salvation. It did so, particularly, by explaining the second principal part of the Reformed Baptism form as referring merely to an objective covenant salvation. The determination of Pieters and Kreulen that the covenant not be governed by election forced them to explain the second principal part of the doctrine of Baptism in the Reformed Baptism form as teaching that Baptism merely seals to all baptized persons, adults as well as infants, an objective membership in the covenant, anobjective redemption, and an objectivesanctification. But these “objective” blessings of the covenant are non-saving and losable. In the theology of the two Dutch ministers, Baptism no longer functioned to seal covenant salvation to anyone, infant or adult. Baptism was no longer a means to give precious assurance of covenant salvation—in theexperience of the believer and the child of the believer.

Against this destruction of the assurance of salvation in the covenant, Joffers responded with indignation, comparing the covenant theology of Pieters and Kreulen to the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace.

That view [of the covenant] yawns wider than the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, through the mouth of which the three young men were thrown into the fire of that fiery furnace. For according to their view, they throw the members of the covenant through the door of “objective” out of the right to life, out of life itself, and out of the possession of any blessings of salvation into or under the wrath of God.6

Let no one miss the significance of this objection. Every doctrine of the covenant that separates the covenant from election makes assurance of salvation impossible for the baptized members of the covenant. Only election affords assurance of salvation.

Joffers warned his two colleagues “that they not continue with such a way of treating [Baptism and the covenant], so that it not happen to them that they be killed by the fire of God’s wrath, as happened to those men who threw the three young men into the fiery furnace and were killed by the sparks of that fire.”7

In a devastating paragraph, Joffers responded to the mockery of Pieters and Kreulen, that the covenant doctrine of Joffers and Van Velzen was hardly a “hundred years old.” Suppose this is true, said Joffers,

then they [Pieters and Kreulen] are still obliged to acknowledge that that view is a hundred years older than their “objective” view, which [Pieters and Kreulen] have drawn from their novelty-producing pen now four years ago [with the publication of their book, Infant Baptism—DJE]. They are also obliged to acknowledge that the view which they mock has more support in the history of the church than their “objective” view. For that view, that all baptized children of the church are “objectively” in the covenant of grace, is an “unchurchly” and unbiblical doctrine.8

No one could deny that the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen was a new doctrine in the churches of the Secession, indeed a new doctrine in the tradition of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

The main purpose of Joffers’ book was not the exposure of the false doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen. The main purpose was a positive explanation of the orthodox, biblical, and Reformed doctrine of infant baptism and the covenant. Joffers was defending the doctrine of the “fathers of the Secession.”

Fundamental to this doctrine is the close relation between covenant and election.

The covenant . . . is secured to eternal election as is evident from Rom. XI:7, “What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded.”9 

The covenant of grace is established by God with the elect, with them alone, emphatically with them alone.10

The non-elect have no part in the covenant of grace.11

“Secured to eternal election,” the covenant is unconditional, that is, does not depend upon the faith and obedience of the baptized child.

Against [the teaching that God makes His covenant conditionally with all the baptized children], we assert that God has not made the covenant of grace with man under conditions, properly so called, or that this covenant depends upon the faith and conversion of man. Rather, God has established His covenant of grace with the elect without conditions, properly so called, and promises unilaterally to give everything that is promised in the covenant of grace as pure grace.12

Especially dear to the heart of Joffers was the truth that the promise of the covenant is certain and trustworthy to every one to whom God makes the promise.

Everything He promised, He gives. To this, the elect assent in the time of love, and this assent the Lord has promised, and that He will operate upon the hearts of the elect to this end, as is written in Jer. XXXI:33, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This operation upon the heart unto the assent to, or reception of, the covenant of grace and its promise God promises and gives, not to the entire [nation of] Israel and their children head for head; nor does God promise and give this to the entire, external, evangelical church with their children. But God promises and gives that only to His elect, who are the “children of the promise, who are counted for the seed,” according to Rom. IX:8.13

This doctrine of the covenant assures every member of the covenant, in whom the promise of the covenant creates a true and living faith in the promising God, that he or she will be preserved unto everlasting life. There is no falling out of the covenant, no falling away of covenant saints unto perdition.

As certainly as the fire of the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar had no power upon the three young men, to destroy them, so certainly also has the fire of God’s wrath lost its power upon the baptized children who are in the covenant of grace, so that it cannot destroy them to all eternity.14

Joffers presented his view of infant baptism and the covenant as the prevailing, if not theonly, doctrine of the churches of the Secession prior to the publication of the book by Pieters and Kreulen in 1861. He had no doubt that his readers would acknowledge this, including Pieters and Kreulen. Nevertheless, Joffers recognized the popularity of the doctrine he was opposing. In the brief period of four years, “that view has much influence in our church.”15 Joffers expected strong opposition to his doctrine: “Although I have fully anticipated that my view, set forth in this little work, will meet with much opposition and many adversaries in our church at first, nevertheless this has not deterred me from responding to the pernicious view referred to [that of Pieters and Kreulen—DJE].”16

Joffers was hopeful regarding the doctrine of an unconditional covenant of grace, which has its source in and is governed by God’s eternal election of grace: “[I] expect that my view will remain standing firm in God’s church.”17

God has not put his expectation to shame. The covenant doctrine of the “fathers of the Secession” has always been maintained in the Reformed churches of the Dutch tradition. That it remained the dominant view in the Dutch Reformed churches standing in the tradition of the Secession is plain from Herman Bavinck’s treatment of the covenant in his Reformed Dogmatics.18 It is boldly and joyfully confessed today by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.

Opposition to the new covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen was not limited to a war of books and magazines. A ruling elder in the churches of the Secession, happily named G. Vos, protested the doctrine of his colleagues in the ministry to a Secession synod. This was the Synod of Franeker (1863).

Vos’ protest charged the two Dutch preachers with “heterodoxy” in their book on infant baptism and the covenant. Their doctrine of a covenant of grace with all baptized children alike, dependent on a condition the children must perform, was, in Vos’ judgment, a denial of the gospel of grace: “I may not tolerate that grace must be bought from God by a condition, and, therefore, the covenant of grace is to be compared with a business contract for buying a house or some other property.”19

The Synod of Franeker rejected Vos’ protest. By no means did it enthusiastically adopt the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen. Deliberately, it cautioned the members of the Secession churches that it did not want to be judged as holding that the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen “is in all respects the most correct expression of the sentiments of the Reformed Church.” Nevertheless, the synod decided that it “is not able to condemn the brothers [Pieters and Kreulen] as being in conflict with the confessions of the Church.”20

E. Smilde was right, that this synodical decision was a “compromise.” 21

“Liberated” Reformed theologian C. Veenhof was also right, that the decision recognized the new covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen as “confessional.”22

The compromise-decision of the Synod of Franeker, no doubt taken in the interests of peace in the churches—always a powerful force at the major assemblies—was destructive. It sanctioned a doctrine of the covenant that cut the covenant, the covenant promise, covenant grace, covenant perseverance, covenant salvation, and the covenant faithfulness of God loose from election. It set the covenant on the basis of children’s performance of a condition.

By refusing to judge between the two radically different and mutually antagonistic conceptions of the covenant, it opened up the Reformed churches to fierce controversies and agonizing schisms. One thinks of the schism in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the 1940s and of the schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches in the 1950s.

By tolerating, if not approving, the conditional covenant doctrine, it paved the way to the heresy of the federal vision, which denies justification by faith alone and all the doctrines of grace as confessed by the Canons of Dordt, now troubling many of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.

In the minutes of the Franeker Synod, “father” Van Velzen had recorded that the decision of synod on “this weighty matter” was contrary to his advice. Joffers saw to it that the minutes contained the notation that he “protests against the [decision of synod—DJE], that a little book with a strange doctrine, which . . . is in conflict with the first question of the Baptism form concerning the infant children of believers, shall be tolerated in our Church.”23

As is invariably the case with compromising major assemblies—miserable creatures!—the Synod of Franeker neither settled a fundamental doctrinal issue (as synods are duty-bound to do), nor brought peace to the churches (as synods are peculiarly privileged to do). The strife over infant baptism and the covenant continued unabated, as is evident from the fact that the articles by Pieters and Van Velzen in De Bazuin and the little book by H. Joffers referred to previously in this series on the doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession” appeared after the decision of the Synod of Franeker in 1863.

The issue of infant baptism and the covenant appeared again on the agenda of the Synod of Amsterdam in 1866. The Reformed churches of North Holland overtured that “synod declare itself concerning the doctrine and practice of Holy Baptism, so that there come an end to the strife between its objective and subjective meaning and sealing.”24

Unable to reach agreement and unwilling to decide between the two opposing views, the Synod of Amsterdam contented itself with a decision that called on all the ministers to restrict themselves to the language of the confessions in treating of infant baptism and the covenant.

How unsatisfactory, indeed impossible, this decision actually was appears in the treatment of it by the “liberated” theologian C. Veenhof. Veenhof celebrates the decision as allowing both of the conflicting doctrines a place in the Reformed churches. Whereupon, he promptly interprets the language of the confessions as teaching a gracious, conditional covenant promise to all, that is, the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen.25

Scholars of the Secession of 1834 have spoken of the “tragedy of the Secession.” They referred to the doctrinal controversies that racked the Secession churches.

The scholars are mistaken. The controversies were not a tragedy. They were the necessary, if painful, struggles of living churches, recently brought to life out of the spiritual death of Arminianism and modernism, growing to maturity and developing in the “knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13).

There was a “tragedy of the Secession.” The tragedy was that churches born of the gospel of sovereign, particular grace were so soon bewitched by a doctrine of the covenant that made the grace of God powerless, the will of man decisive, salvation uncertain, and the promising God deceptive.

The tragedy was the acceptance of the conditional covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen.

… to be concluded.


¹ The Dutch title is De Kinderdoop, met zijn Grond en Vrucht (Kampen: S. Van Velzen Jr., 1865). The book has not been translated. All quotations from the book, as well as from other Dutch writings, are my translations.

² H. Joffers, De Kinderdoop, 7.

³ Ibid., 6.

4. Ibid., 42.

5. Ibid., 18.

6. Ibid., 29.

7. Ibid., 30.

8. Ibid., 20, 21. The Dutch original of “has more support in the history of the church” is: “meer kerkelijkheid in de geschiedenis bezit.”

9. Ibid., 36.

10. Ibid., 6.

11. Ibid., 19.

12. Ibid., 7.

13. Ibid., 7.

14. Ibid., 30.

15. Ibid., 3.

16. Ibid., 4.

17. Ibid.

18. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend (Baker: 2006), 193-232. See also my review article, “Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three: Covenant and Election,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 40, no. 1 (April 2007): 83-95.

19. G. Vos, quoted in C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1959), 173.

20. Ibid., 80.

21. E. Smilde, Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1946), 49.

22. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing, 81.

23. Ibid., 81, 82. Having noted Joffers’ protest against the synodical decision approving the doctrine of a conditional covenant, Veenhof commits the illicit, but effective, logical fallacy of “poisoning the wells.” In a footnote that goes on for three and a half pages in small print, the “liberated” theologian demonstrates that Joffers was “harsh,” “brutal,” “rude,” and “fanatical.” The student of church history recognizes these qualities as virtually the attributes of all those men whom the Spirit of Christ has used to preserve the truth of the gospel in time of departure. One can easily imagine the Galatian errorists describing the apostle Paul by these epithets. See Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing, 174-177.

24. Ibid., 83.

25. Ibid., 85-87.