Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.
As I mentioned a few months ago, Mr. Roelof Janssen from Inheritance Publications sent me a copy of their new book, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism & Extra-Scriptural Binding — A New Danger, evidently with the intention that I should comment on it. The second part of this book consists of Dr. Klaas Schilder’s reflections on our “Declaration of Principles,” written originally as a series in De Reformatie following its formulation at our synod of 1950. Historically these articles are of significance, inasmuch as they contain Schilder’s only substantial reflections on our churches; and in their own way they do bring out some of the most basic differences between us. It was only after reading them, and in order to do the book justice, that I turned to the essay of Dr. Jelle Faber which opens the book. Interestingly, I found Faber’s essay to be even more significant than the articles of Schilder.
In this paper Dr. Faber examines the positions of seven early professors of Calvin Seminary, at least six of whom, he claims, formed a consistent line of theological thought — essentially the same as that now held by the Liberated Churches (suggesting, no doubt, that those who would remain loyal to the historical teachings of the Christian Reformed can now best ally themselves with the Canadian Reformed). As I read this, however, something struck me as extremely strange. Faber deals with the last two of these men, William Heyns and Foppe M. tenHoor, as though they were of one theological cut, while I recall distinctly how Herman Hoeksema, who studied under both of them, took strong exception to the teachings of Heyns, while he was quite fond of tenHoor and in a certain way looked upon him as his own theological mentor. I do not have ready access to the extant writings of tenHoor, but Faber points out that tenHoor had been a classmate of the great Dutch theologian, Dr. Herman Bavinck, and a correspondent with him in later life, leading to the likelihood that their theological positions were essentially similar. This sent me quickly to the shelf for Bavinck’s great book, Our Reasonable Faith,1 and in it to the chapter on “The Covenant.” I was amazed. Here, in most concise form are all of the essential elements of Herman Hoeksema’s covenant view — at almost every point precisely opposite to that of Heyns, Schilder, and the Liberated Churches.
Bavinck begins this study with an extended treatment of the universal desire of man to escape his inborn sense of guilt, and the futility of every human effort to do so — no common grace here. With this he lays the foundation for that principle which runs throughout his work, “In the whole work of redemption it is God and God alone who manifests Himself as the seeking and calling One, and as the speaking and acting One. The whole of redemption begins and ends in Him.”2
Bavinck goes on to state “the fact that the whole of that redemptive work depends upon an eternal counsel,”3 which he approaches from an essentially supralapsarian point of view by proposing that, of its decrees, “the first is election”4 — placing it thereby at the beginning of the divine decrees, which is precisely the principal point underlying Supralapsarianism.
He proceeds to deal with the three primary decrees. Of the first he says, “Election is not the whole counsel of redemption, but is a part, the first and principal part, of it. Included and established in that counsel is also the way in which the election is to be actualized — in short, the whole accomplishment and application of redemption.”5 Secondly he adds, “The Mediator who will prepare this salvation for them is also pointed out. To this extent Christ Himself can be called the object of God’s election” (implying, in effect, a kind of justification in eternity).6 And so “in the third place … redemption or re-creation takes place only through the applicatory activity of the Holy Spirit.”7 And with that he is ready to focus on the covenant of grace itself.
In this there are three things which he immediately sets forth — placing him in direct conflict with the Heyns/Schilder covenant position.
1.The first is an emphatic identification of the covenant with election:
After all, when the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man has forfeited and which he can never again achieve in his own strength…. So far from election and the covenant of grace forming a contrast of opposites, the election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace. And it is so indispensably important to cling to this close relationship because the least weakening of it not merely robs one of the true insight into the achieving and application of salvation, but also robs the believers of their only and sure comfort in the practice of their spiritual life.8
Clearly, in Bavinck’s mind a separating of the covenant from election, as Schilder insists must be done, destroys the idea of the covenant completely, and makes it a covenant of works.
2.Accordingly, Bavinck has absolutely no place for a conditional covenant, as he says:
if this salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life. In this, grace and works stand at opposite poles from each other and are mutually exclusive. If salvation is by grace it is no longer by works, or otherwise grace is no longer grace. And if it is by works, it is not by grace, or otherwise works are not works (Rom. 11:6). The Christian religion has this unique characteristic, that is the religion of redemption, sheer grace, pure religion. But it can be recognized and maintained as such only if it is a free gift coming up out of the counsel of God alone.9
3.Bavinck then comes to what the Liberated so often present as the heart of the whole matter, the promise given centrally to Abraham, and which they are most insistent must be conditional in order to maintain the responsibility of man; but Bavinck writes:
The one, great, all-inclusive promise of the covenant of grace is: I will be thy God, and the God of thy people. …this promise is not conditional, but is as positive and certain as anything can be. God does not say that He will be our God if we do this or that thing. But He says that He will put enmity, that He will be our God, and that in Christ He will grant us all things. The covenant of grace can throughout the centuries remain the same because it depends entirely upon God and because God is the Immutable One and the Faithful One.10
This, however, is not all. As Bavinck goes on, he lays down a series of principles, all of which were to reappear in Hoeksema’s view of the covenant, and in fact underlie his entire theology.
1.It begins with the fact, as Hoeksema often stressed, that there is essentially only one covenant. So Bavinck writes:
In the first place, the covenant of grace is everywhere and at all times one in essence, but always manifests itself in new forms and goes through differing dispensations. Essentially and materially it remains one.11
2.This covenant, being a covenant of grace and not of works, cannot be broken:
The covenant of grace can throughout the centuries remain the same because it depends entirely upon God and because God is the Immutable One and the Faithful One. The covenant of works which was concluded with man before the fall was violable and it was violated, for it depended upon changeable man. But the covenant of grace is fixed and established solely in the compassion of God. People can become unfaithful, but God does not forget His promise. He cannot and may not break His covenant; He has committed Himself to maintaining it with a freely given and precious oath: His name, His honor, and His reputation depends on it. It is for His own sake that He obliterates the transgressions of His people and remembers their sins no more. Therefore the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but His kindness will not depart from us, nor shall the covenant of His peace be removed, says the Lord who has mercy on us (Is. 54:10).12
3.Possibly most significant of all, Bavinck presents the covenant as being organic in nature:
The second peculiarity or remarkable characteristic of the covenant of grace is that in all of its dispensations it has an organic character…. The elect, accordingly, do not stand loosely alongside of each other, but are one in Christ…. It is one communion or fellowship, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.13
This perhaps more basically than anything separates his view from that of Schilder, who, like Abraham Kuyper before him,
had a preference for judicial categories and for terms like statute, obligation and legal status, defined by the speaking God, the God of the Word, both for those who will respond positively, and for those whose response will be negative.14
Meanwhile, however, the Revs. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema had followed Bavinck’s suggestion and focused on the organic relationship of friendship as the heart of their covenantal thought. To them the idea of the covenant as a living relationship was far more biblical and far richer in thought than that of a legal right to something that might not even be realized in the end.
4.Seeing the covenant as related so closely with election, Bavinck saw, as Hoeksema did after him, this election following often, if not usually, in the line of believing generations:
Grace is not a legacy which is transferred by natural birth, but does flow on in the river-bed which has been dug out in the natural relationships of the human race. The covenant of grace does not ramble about at random, but perpetuates itself, historically and organically, in families, generations, nations.15
5.The works of the covenant then follow as a result of covenant grace, rather than as a condition to its fulfillment:
the covenant of grace … realizes itself in a way which fully honors man’s rational and moral nature. It is based on the counsel of God, yes, and nothing may be subtracted from that fact…. But that will is not a necessity, a destiny, which imposes itself on man from without, but is, rather, the will of the Creator of heaven and earth, One who cannot repudiate His own work in creation or providence, and who cannot treat the human being He has created as though it were a stock or stone…. This accounts for the fact that the covenant of grace, which really makes no demands and lays down no conditions, nevertheless comes to us in the form of a commandment, admonishing us to faith and repentance. …the covenant of grace is pure grace, and nothing else, and excludes all works. It gives what it demands, and fulfills what it prescribes. The Gospel is sheer good tidings, not demand but promise, not duty but gift.16
6.Moreover, such covenant life flows from the will, which is directed by reason, rather than from a blind faith in what appears to be contradictory:
The will of God realizes itself in no other way than through our reason and our will. That is why it is rightly said that a person, by the grace He receives, himself believes and himself turns from sin to God.17
7.And, finally, the presence of unbelievers in the covenant is only in appearance, as in the biblical figure of the chaff among the wheat:
But there can also be persons who are taken up into the covenant of grace as it manifests itself to our eyes and who nevertheless on account of their unbelieving and unrepentant heart are devoid of all the spiritual benefits of the covenant. … In the days of the Old Testament by no means all were Israel which were of Israel (Rom. 9:6), for it is not the children of the flesh but the children of the promise that are counted for the seed (Rom. 9:8 and 2:29). And in the New Testament church there is chaff in the grain, evil branches on the vine, and earthen as well as golden vessels.18 There are people who display a form of godliness, but who deny the power thereof…. even though there are no two covenants standing loosely alongside of each other, it can be said that there are two sides to the one covenant of grace. One of these is visible to us; the other also is perfectly visible to God, and to Him alone…. But in the final analysis it is not our judgment, but God’s that determines. He is the Knower of hearts and the Trier of the reins. With Him there is no respecting of persons. Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart…. Let everyone, therefore, examine himself, whether he be in the faith, whether Jesus Christ be in him.19
From all of this it would seem apparent that among Secession theologians there arose at least four different strains of covenant theology:
1.The presupposed unregeneration of the Netherlands Reformed.
2.The presupposed regeneration of Abraham Kuyper.
3.The conditional covenant of Heyns and Schilder.
4.And that of Herman Bavinck, who, few would doubt, represented the mainstream of Dutch Reformed theology.
It was in this latter, it would seem, that Herman Hoeksema was taught by Prof. tenHoor. And, although Hoeksema has often been dismissed lightly as rationalistic and one-sided, as it becomes so apparent that he was simply following in the footsteps of Herman Bavinck, possibly the greatest of all Dutch Reformed theologians, there is great reason to give his teachings more serious study and concern than they have generally received thus far.
(Inasmuch as Our Reasonable Faith is no longer in print, the Eerdmans Publishing Co. has granted me permission to reproduce this chapter on “The Covenant of Grace” in limited numbers. Anyone desiring to have a copy of it, in order to read this treatment through in complete context, may contact me:
616-345-4556; BWoudenberg@ CompuServe.com; or 1355 Bretton Drive, Kalamazoo, MI 49006.)
1Bavinck, Herman, This book was published in Dutch under the beautiful name Magnalia Dei (“The Magnificent Works of God”) and was translated into English with the lucidity which only Dr. Henry Zylstra could provide, but was published in English with the rather bland title Our Reasonable Faith, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956, and I believe was republished by Baker in 1984, but is now out of print.
2Ibid. p. 265
3Ibid. p. 266
4Ibid. p. 266
5Ibid. p. 273
6Ibid. p. 267
7Ibid. p. 268
8Ibid. pp. 272, 273
9Ibid. pp. 272, 273
10Ibid. p. 274
11Ibid. p. 274
12Ibid. pp. 274, 275
13Ibid. p. 275
14VanGenderen, Dr. J., Covenant and Election, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1995.
15Op. cit. p. 276
16Ibid. p. 277, 278
17Ibid. p. 278
18Matt. 3:12; 13:29; John 15:2; and 2 Tim. 2:20.
19Ibid. p. 278, 279