Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
At the beginning of that reformation in the Netherlands, the fathers of the Secession of 1834—Hendrik deCock, Simon VanVelzen, Anthony Brummelkamp, and perhaps others— were agreed that election governs the covenant of grace. They differed in other respects, especially whether children of unbelieving members of the congregation should be baptized and concerning the meaning of the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the first question of the Baptism form. But with one voice they confessed that election determines the covenant promise, covenant membership, the enjoyment of covenant blessings, and the realization in some baptized children of covenant salvation.
For the fathers of the Secession, the covenant is a covenant of grace. God establishes His covenant unconditionally with the elect, and with the elect only. The reason was not that those benighted men had not as yet been able to free themselves from the fetters of “scholasticism,” as C. Veenhof contends. The “liberated” Reformed theologian dismisses VanVelzen’s covenant doctrine, which Veenhof correctly describes as the doctrine that has election governing the covenant, as a “typically scholastic method of reasoning.”¹
Rather, the leaders of the Secession formed their doctrine of the covenant according to the gospel of sovereign grace that they found in the Bible and in the Reformed confessions. It was this gospel of sovereign grace that gave birth to the Secession. The Secession of 1834 had its origin in Hendrik deCock’s heartfelt conviction of the truth of salvation by the almighty grace of God. By reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, deCock came to know the truth of the confession of one of his parishioners, Klaas Kuipenga: “If I must add even one sigh to my salvation, then I would be eternally lost.”²
The Canons of Dordt played a powerful, indeed decisive, role in launching the Secession. With good reason, one scholar has called the Canons the “credo” of the Secession. deCock discovered the Canons after his ordination to the ministry. Previously, this Reformed confession was unknown to him, even though he was a graduate of a Reformed seminary (as is the case with many graduates from Reformed seminaries in North America today). At the beginning of the Secession, deCock had the Canons reprinted at his own expense and then distributed copies far and wide throughout the Netherlands.
Hendrik deCock preached the gospel of grace as confessed and defended by the Canons. To this, God’s people responded by a living faith, as they always do, so that the Secession became a mighty and nation-wide reformation of the church. Algra tells us that in the early days of the Secession people traveled half a day on foot to Ulrum (where deCock preached), in order to hear a sermon that did not teach that one is saved “by ‘doing and permitting,’ but by the eternal wonder of unmerited free grace.”³ The first sermon deCock preached after the Secession had taken place in Ulrum was on Ephesians 2: “By grace ye are saved” (the afternoon sermon was on Lord’s Day 1 of the Catechism). The date was October 19, 1834, and is worthy of remembrance.
In his biography of his father, Helenius deCock acknowledged Hendrik deCock’s embrace of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace. Reading Calvin’s Institutes, wrote Helenius deCock, Hendrik deCock
now recognized…the great truth, that later shone through in all his preaching and writing, that it is God who seeks man, who must first love us, if we shall be able to love Him; and who has known and loved His people from before the foundation of the world, so that He would sanctify them. Now it was God alone and He in everything, to whom the honor of redemption belonged.4
The enemies of the Secession understood well that the Secession was church reformation by means of and for the sake of the gospel of grace as confessed by the Canons. When, early in the Secession, VanVelzen pleaded with the leaders of the state church to defend the confessions, one of the ministers replied, “I rather have my neck wrung than subscribe to the Canons of Dordt.”5
Men gripped by the truth of sovereign grace must teach a covenant of grace, that is, a covenant governed by election.
This was the covenant doctrine of the fathers of the Secession.
Fundamental to the doctrine that the covenant is governed by election is the truth that the covenant promise refers to the elect children of believers in Jesus Christ, and to the elect children only. Regarding these objects of the covenant promise to Abraham, that God will be the God of Abraham and Abraham’s seed, Hendrik deCock wrote: “That promise did not refer to all the children of Abraham’s family, head for head, but to all the elect children, which God would later indicate (Rom. 9:7, 8).” He added:
For a child that went lost circumcision could not be a sacrament sealing the promise to this child, because the promise was not made to that child, but to Abraham, not with respect to every child head for head, but with respect to the elect children, to whom that reprobate child did not belong (
Simon VanVelzen, the outstanding Reformed theologian of the Secession, also taught that the covenant is governed by election. Curiously, Canadian Reformed theologian Dr. Jelle Faber overlooked VanVelzen when he listed the representatives of the two contending covenant views in the churches of the Secession later in the nineteenth century. As a representative of the doctrine that election governs the covenant, Faber could only think of Joffers, whose personal reputation suffers among Reformed scholars (thanks in no small part to the “liberated” Reformed, who never fail to lament his narrow-mindedness and stubbornness), and who, in any case, does not belong to the fathers of the Secession. However, Faber could give a long list of Secession ministers who, according to Faber, taught a doctrine of the covenant from which election is strictly banished. 7
Another vitally important element of the covenant doctrine of those Reformed theologians and churches that confess that election governs the covenant is the explanation of the phrase in the Baptism form, “our children…are sanctified in Christ,” that identifies these children as the elect in Christ among the physical children of believers. In 1857, VanVelzen explained this phrase as follows:
We know that everyone who is sanctified in Christ is infallibly saved, that the covenant, of which Baptism is sign and seal, is called an eternal covenant of grace, so that they, who are included in it, cannot perish. How then must we understand it, when at Baptism the little children are said to be “sanctified in Christ”? Must we conceive this of all children who are baptized, of all children head for head who have believing parents? Neither the one, nor the other! It is incontrovertible, I think, that the words in view cannot be understood definitely of every child who is baptized. Rather, they have reference to the seed of the promise, and here the elect are counted for the seed.8
Eight years later, VanVelzen availed himself of his privilege as editor of the magazine De Bazuin to respond to the covenant doctrine of his colleague Rev. K.J. Pieters. By this time, Pieters was introducing into the churches of the Secession, and defending, a radically different doctrine of the covenant than that held by the fathers of the Secession. Pieters taught that, at Baptism, God extended His gracious covenant promise to every child alike. According to Pieters, God assured every child that he or she was now in possession of the grace of the covenant. At Baptism, every child participates in covenant grace, although this by no means assures the salvation of any, for the covenant is conditional. Pieters argued that only this doctrine does justice to God’s assuring all the children that they are heirs of the covenant and its blessings. The other doctrine of the covenant— that of the fathers of the Secession, that of VanVelzen, editor of the magazine in which Pieters was defending his new doctrine of the covenant, as Pieters well knew, that which has election governing the covenant—Pieters charged, makes God a liar and is, in fact, “blasphemous” (Dutch: “Godslasterlijk“).
Incidentally, Pieters’ violent assault on the doctrine of the covenant that has election governing the covenant exposes the error, if not the foolishness, of those today who plead for the tolerance in one church federation of both doctrines of the covenant that struggled for the heart, mind, and confession of the churches of the Secession in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These two doctrines of the covenant are mutually exclusive. They detest each other. And necessarily so. They are, in principle, two different gospels with specific reference to the grace and salvation of the covenant.
VanVelzen’s response to Pieters’ outrageous charge clearly revealed the covenant doctrine of this father of the Secession.
By circumcision, God had given assurance to Israel that they were in possession of the righteousness of faith in the most solemn and earnest manner, and many Israelites have not obtained this righteousness and have not participated in it. But God’s assurance nevertheless does not fail. For the children of the promise, those who are brought to faith out of the power of God’s election and promise, are counted for the seed.9
Anthony Brummelkamp, whose teaching of a “well-meaning offer” of salvation would contribute to a radically different doctrine of the covenant, was originally one with deCock and VanVelzen in teaching that election governs the covenant. Brummelkamp maintained that election determines the true seed of Abraham, and the true children of believers, to whom the promise is made and who alone are included in the covenant of grace. Replying on behalf of the important, early Secession synod of 1837 (Utrecht) to questions raised by Hendrik deCock, Brummelkamp said this about the holiness of children taught in I Corinthians 7:14 (“now are they [your children] holy”), and by implication the sanctification of children in the first question of the Baptism form, and about the relation of election and covenant:
The word “holy” used by the apostle [in] I Cor. VII:14, concerning the children of believers, has the same meaning in this passage as it does at the beginning of the epistle [in] chapter 1:2 when the apostle addresses the congregation as sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, since the children of the congregation as well as the adults are included in the covenant of God, and the Lord has shed His blood as well for them as for the adults and has adopted them as His children and taken them into the covenant of grace (Bel. Conf., Art. 34 and the form of infant baptism). Giving this explanation, we must at the same time observe that we most vehemently deny that we are thereby saying: that each and every child of the congregation head for head possesses or will possess a holiness worked in their heart by the Holy Spirit (Dutch: “eene inklevende heiligheid”), as little as we would give such an explanation concerning every one of their parents, who show themselves to us as sanctified in Christ, although we treat them as such. For not because they are produced from the congregation according to the flesh are they all children of God, but the children of the promise are the holy seed (Rom IX:7, 8). This holy seed, as well as all the other elect, is taken into the covenant of grace, in which covenant nothing is included that is unholy.10
Conclusive is Brummelkamp’s appeal toRomans 9:7, 8. The appeal to this passage in a discussion of the covenant promise indicates that one views the covenant, particularly the membership of children in the covenant, as governed by God’s sovereign predestination. This, of course, is precisely the doctrine of the apostle in the passage.
Two synods of the Secession churches expressed the judgment of the fathers of the Secession that election governs the covenant. The first was the Synod of Utrecht (1837). Among other decisions, this synod declared that
the children of believers are included in the covenant of God and His congregation with their parents by virtue of the promises of God. Therefore, Synod believes, with Head I, Art. 17 of the Canons of Dordt, that godly parents must be admonished not to doubt the election and salvation of their children, whom God takes away in their infancy. Therefore, Synod, with the Baptism Form, counts the children of believers to have to be regarded as members of the congregation of Christ, as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant. Since, however, the Word of God plainly teaches that not all are Israel who are of Israel, and the children of the promises are counted for the seed, therefore Synod by no means regards all and every one head for head, whether children or adult confessors, as true objects of the grace of God or regenerated.
The synod added that it denied “a falling away of saints or a falling out of the covenant of grace.”11
These statements by the Secession Synod of Utrecht express the covenant doctrine of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.
The other synod was the Synod of Leiden (1857). This synod treated a protest against the preaching of Brummelkamp, who was universalizing the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ by a “well-meaning offer” of salvation. Significantly, the synod was compelled to declare that the “Three Forms of Unity” “rejected universal atonement.” But the synod also made a statement concerning the doctrine of infant baptism: “That the children of the congregation must be baptized as members; but just as not all were Israel who were of Israel, that likewise also among the children of believers there are unconverted and reprobates.”12
From the very beginning of the Secession in 1834 through the 1840s and 1850s, the fathers of the Secession and therefore the churches of the Secession proclaimed a doctrine of the covenant that has the covenant governed by (not: “oppressed by,” “stifled by,” “burdened with,” “identified with,” or any of the other pejorative phrases used by Reformed theologians who oppose this doctrine of the covenant) election—election as an eternal, gracious, sovereign decree. There were other differences concerning the covenant, particularly how the holiness of the infants was to be explained. But on this vital matter, the fathers of the Secession agreed. They agreed because they read, rightly interpreted, and loved the covenant gospel of grace taught in Romans 9. E. Smilde was right when he said that the “Churches of the Secession lived inRom. 9 and held fast the connection of election and the covenant of grace without wavering.”13
In the 1860s, two Secession ministers, K.J. Pieters and J.R. Kreulen, introduced a radically different doctrine of the covenant. This doctrine denied any relation of election and covenant. The two ministers were so bold as to declare that every thought of election must be banished at the Baptism font. This new doctrine of the covenant—new to the churches of the Secession—found a reception. This is the covenant doctrine of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). This is the covenant doctrine that now comes to full development in the heresy of the Federal Vision.
. . . to be concluded.
¹ C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing (Kampen: Kok, 1959), 77. This and the other quotations of the Dutch in this article are my translations.
² H. Algra, Het Wonder van de 19e Eeuw: Van Vrije Kerken en Kleine Luyden (Franeker: T. Wever, 1966), 107.
4 Quoted in B. Wielenga, De Reformatie van ’34 (Kampen: Kok, 1933), 41. The emphasis is deCock’s.
5 Ibid., 80. The Dutch is irresistibly forceful: “Ik laat mij liever den hals afsnijden, dan dat ik de Dordtsche leerregels zou onderteekenen.”
6 Hendrik deCock, “Korte Verklaring van den Kinderdoop. In Vragen en Antwoorden, in Verzamelde Geschriften (Houten: DenHertog, 1986), 494. I express my thanks to Mr. Marvin Kamps for obtaining for me this and some of the other Dutch writings I have read for this article.
7 Jelle Faber, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1996), 26, 27.
8 Simon VanVelzen, “Brief over de Heiliging van de Kinderen der Geloovigen in Christus,” De Bazuin [a magazine of the Secession churches] (Aug. 14, 1857) [the magazine is not paginated].
9 Simon VanVelzen, De Bazuin (Jan. 20, 1865). The article by Pieters, which editor VanVelzen freely footnoted in order to add his running rejoinders, is titled, “Eenige Opmerkingen over de 69e vr. en Antw.van den Katechismus.”
10 Anthony Brummelkamp, quoted in H.[elenius] deCock, Hendrik deCock, Eerste Afgescheiden Predikant in Nederland Beschouwd in Leven en Werkzaamheid (Delfzijl: Jan Haan, 1886), 569, 570. The emphasis is Brummelkamp’s.
11 Quoted in Hendrik deCock, Verzamelde Geschriften, 530.
12 Quoted in Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing, 59.
13 E. Smilde, Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop (Kampen: Kok, 1946), 27.