Prof. Veenhof continues:
“Inevitably the question urges itself upon us, how is it to be explained that it is so difficult to understand exactly one another’s opinions and views?
“With much hesitation,—for, Oh, those misunderstandings,—I will attempt to say something about this.
“What always strikes me in the publications which come from the circles of the Prot. Ref. Churches concerning doctrine is the strict, logical conclusiveness thereof. Under the controlling principle of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation the entire truth of Scripture is construed into an imposing, straight-lined edifice. And this naturally leads to the result that whoever lives in that theological edifice finds that he cannot adapt himself, and even becomes somewhat peeved when he notices that others do not arrange the different moments and data of the Scriptural truth in the same way as he did himself. Over against this closely logical presentation of the Scriptural truth we as Liberated stand rather reserved. We have seen with amazement and experience it more and more every day that theological thought may form beautifully lined and glitteringly lucid icicles, while withal life itself flows away. We are but too well acquainted with the figure of the heavily orthodox ungodly, clothed with the armor of a well-developed, dogmatic, theological system. And we see too how in many children of God the life of faith, joy and peace, and also the struggle against sin is weakened and pines under the cover of dogmatic constructions. And what is worse, is that they in this way cannot find the correct positions and the proper weapons in the battle against the spirit of the age, that they allow themselves to be imposed upon by false presentations of problems, or raise problems themselves, the result of which is that they cannot develop any power. The pious and learned Voetius in his struggle against the Cartesians is of this truth a pitiable and warning example.
“Of course, we know quite well that dogmatical studies are imperative. How could it be different in the neighborhood of Prof. Schilder? But I want to point out emphatically that exactly in his neighborhood one learns to know the awful burden of dogmatical labor. Exactly in his neighborhood one learns to be deathly afraid of hasty conclusions, formulas, expressions, instructions. It is in my opinion one of Schilder’s great merits that by the treatment of every dogma, yea, of every subdivision of it, he considers so many aspects, dimensions, and connections, that one becomes dizzy of it. In his instruction you learn to know a little of the living truth of the word of the psalmist, “I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad.” Especially with respect to the covenant construction of the synodicals he showed in an annihilating way how by them all kinds of moments, aspects, relations, depths, were overlooked or distorted, and how this resulted not in the construction of a solid dogmatic edifice, but in carpentering together of a little house that speaks and creaks in all its joints and is drafty all over. You must have noticed yourself at the conference which you held with him a couple of years ago how Schilder brought various things concerning the covenant, the promise, and baptism in the line of your vision, of which formerly they had no, or almost no, notion.
“In this reserved attitude in respect to dogmatical constructions we live and think. Before all things it has become clear to us again that one can have a beautiful orthodoxy and yet be as dead as a doornail. And further we have learned in the last years through a series of terrible experiences that the apostasy of the church is not in the first place an aberration in respect to a dogmatical question, but rather consists in a failure to fear the Lord and to practice real piety, purity, and truth. And further, the Lord showed us again that the life of the church does not consist in a living out of and according to doctrines and dogmatical constructions, but in living out of, in walking according to, in being judged and justified, in being broken down and built up through the ever living, ever veracious Word of God, which is according to its very nature always a power of God unto salvation. Spasmodic conservation of doctrinal constructions is often already a symptom of incipient apostasy. A doctrinal construction does not condemn you! It does not break you in pieces, neither does it redeem you. On the contrary, you can handle it beautifully, and with it you become strong and big. But in the grip of the Word of God, of the Word that is always spoken through the Spirit, you go under. In it disappears all self-exaltation and pride. In that Word we can only be fools, poor, impotent ones of Christ.
“And thus we struggle for, out of, according to, through the living Word of our heavenly Father, the Word which the Holy Spirit through the means of the Holy Scriptures speaks unto us daily, and which we confess joyfully in the words of our Confession that we live and battle in the midst of a perishing world.
“Never can you sing so powerfully and so joyfully the son of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation that our heart does not agree with it entirely.
“Never can you preach so strongly and sharply a redemption of pure, sovereign grace, that we do not listen to it with complete consent. The word of the farm-hand from Ulrum with which he attacked De Cock: If I have to cooperate unto my salvation even with one sigh, I am lost forever—also correctly expresses for us the faith of our hearts.
“Never can you picture in such serious and somber colors the corruption, the abomination, the perversity, and the powerlessness of the natural man, that we do not agree with you wholeheartedly.
“And when you preach that the covenant and the entrance into the covenant and the life and perseverance in the covenant and the reception of all the benefits of it are only and exclusively the work of the Lord, then we say, “Amen”, with all our heart.
“But at the same time—or no, in that way I do not express myself correctly; I must say: and at the same time—or still better: and for that reason—we believe and confess and preach too the Word of the Lord that speaks of a working out of our own salvation with fear and trembling because God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure ( ); that speaks of a not willing to come to Christ in spite of His calling ( ); of a resisting of the Holy Spirit ( ); of a rejection of the counsel of God against themselves ( ).
“We also want to do full justice to the Word of God and bow under it when it assures us that a man is justified out of the works and not only out of faith (Jas. 2:24); that it is the commandment of God that we believe in the name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ (); that Christ calls us powerfully and permanently unto conversion ( ).
“We also want to repeat after the Holy Spirit emphatically and without any reservation when that Spirit holds before us as a warning example that there are ungodly that have been once enlightened, that have tasted the heavenly gift, that have partaken of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the age to come and perish nevertheless (); that they shall receive the sorer punishment who have trodden underfoot the Son of God and have counted the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sanctified an unholy thing and have done despite unto the Spirit of grace ( ); that there is danger that we cause brethren and sisters to perish for whom Christ died ( ; ); and that there have been false prophets and teachers and will be in the future, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that brought them and bring upon themselves swift destruction ( ).
“We also want to repeat after our heavenly Father in admonishing in all seriousness the believers, the members of the church, that they shall not break the covenant of the Lord in which He receives them (; ; ; ), that they shall not forsake it ( ) or destroy it ( ; ; ); that therefore they shall not as Esau sell their birthright ( ) but that they shall fear for the vengeance, the curse of the covenant ( ; ).
“In brief we will receive and live out of the full, veracious, condemning justifying, life-giving Word of God. In that speech we will do justice to every part of it. And while we acknowledge wholeheartedly the calling to seek the deeper unity of all that God speaks, we confess at the same time that here we shall never be able to discover this to the end! We may indeed from every side drill into the powerful mountain mass of God’s revelation, but our little tunnels can never penetrate so very deeply in the bowels of that mountain.
“We can never, never advance farther than to an ‘open’ system! But—this for us is no reason for sorrow, for we believe in the living God, in walking before His face, in resting in the finished work of Christ. And all this together with the battle of faith do not need to wait for such a logical system. They are not dependent on it for their power and growth. Rather are they being born out of a believing living from the entire Scripture, with complete acknowledgement of all its parts and moments in their proper significance and power. And every theological glory prematurely grasped, and every hastily construed modeling of the data of Scripture into a closed, einheitliche conception, which nevertheless ignores several important elements of revelation, in order to live thereby is the death for the church and for our faith.”
You write, dear brother, that you stand rather reserved or hesitant over against any logical system of the truth, and you seem to be afraid that such a system is harmful to the true life of the church. The life of faith, of joy and peace, of the children of God and the battle against sin, according to you, suffer under the cover of dogmatic constructions.
But I think, esteemed brother, that underlying your argument there is a false contrast between doctrine and life; and of this I am very much afraid. I would therefore lodge the following objections against your line of reasoning:
1. In the first place, unless we want a certain “Biblical theology” or an “open Bible church”, we need sound dogmatical exposition of the truth. And even the open Bible church cannot avoid it. Its claim of an open Bible is usually nothing but a pretense, camouflaging the propagation of all kinds of false doctrine, usually Arminian and premillenial in our country. A system of doctrine everybody has, nolens volens. And usually the true system of doctrine has developed under the influence of and through reaction against all kinds of heresies. Such a true system simply sets forth in systematic order the truth of the Bible. Even in our Reformed confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Confessio Belgica, and the Canons of Dordrecht, we have such a dogmatic system of the truth. Now, a system of truth is either logical, or it is neither a system nor the truth. It is true, of course, that Scripture itself offers no finished system of doctrine. But the Bible is certainly not illogical; nor does it ever teach logical contradictions. It does not teach that black is white; that righteousness is unrighteousness; that the truth is the lie; that God wills that all men shall be saved, and that He does not will it. And because Scripture itself is logical, and because God has created our minds so as to be logical, any system of truth based on the Word of God must needs be strictly logical. Another question is whether we can always fully understand and explain and harmonize all the elements of Scripture, so that they fit into the Scriptural system of the truth. But in that case we proceed, as all the Reformed fathers always did, from the current teaching of Holy Writ and try to explain doubtful or dark passages in the light of that current teaching. And I am very much afraid of what you call an “open” system.
2. In spite of all you write against such a strictly logical system, esteemed brother, you have one of your own and defend it against the synodicals. Your system revolves around the dogmatic principle that the promise of the gospel is, as far as God is concerned, objectively for all the children of the covenant. You maintain, of course, that this is Scriptural. But it is nevertheless a dogmatical construction. Over against this dogmatical construction we maintain the organic idea of the covenant, which implies that the promise is only for the elect. That is our system of the truth in regard to the covenant of God. And I hope you understand that we also do not want anything else than the Word of God, contained in the Holy Scriptures. We maintain that the proposition that the promise is for all the children of the covenant, for all that are born under the covenant, for all the children of believing parents, is unscriptural. Ultimately, therefore, it is not a question of our own abstract system of dogmatics, but of the correct interpretation of Holy Writ.
3. If the spiritual life of the church suffers, it surely cannot be the fault of the correct and logical system of -the truth. But on the one hand, this must be attributed to the presence and influence of the carnal seed in the church, and on the other hand, to laxity and deadness in the preaching of the Word. Especially the latter is an important factor in explaining the laxity and deadness and negligence in the life and walk of any church. Do not forget that there is a vast difference between a correct and logical system of the truth and the lively preaching of the Word of God. Such a logical system is necessary, but it is not by any means the same as the living preaching of the living Word of God. It is not through a system of dogmatics, but through the preaching of the Word of God that it pleases the Holy Spirit to work faith in the hearts of the people of God and to strengthen it. Hence, in my class in homiletics I always try to impress upon my students that their sermons must not be pieces of cold dogmatics, but must be the living ministry of the Word of God. But the poverty of spiritual life in any church must certainly not be attributed to the fact that we have a logical system of doctrine. And least of all must a system be blamed that is dominated and controlled by the true principle that God is God, and that salvation is unconditionally of Him alone. For that is the cor ecclesiae, the very heart of the church.
I cannot take time and space to enter into all the texts to which you refer in your article. In general let me say that there is hardly a text among them all on which I have not preached some time or other. I have the habit of always preaching series. I have preached through many books of Holy Writ in my ministry; and I can assure you that I am not conscious of ever corrupting the Word of God. I am glad that in your article that you believe and confess and preach the Word of the Lord also in the texts to which you refer, because you believe that salvation is exclusively the work of the Lord. To me, at least, that means that there is no conflict between one and the other part of Holy Writ.
But let me take a few of those passages as illustrations of my exegesis of them, to see if you agree with me. I will not enter into a detailed explanation* but just suggest in a general way what is the meaning of those texts.
First of all, I refer to , a text on which I preached in my own congregation not so very long ago.
In the immediate context the author had exhorted the believers to carry on to perfection, that is, not in the ethical sense, but to strive for perfection in the knowledge of the truth. In vss. 4-8 he continues to give a warning example of those that do not heed this admonition. Although the text itself is negative, therefore, it has certainly a positive purpose.
Now, esteemed brother, when you preach on this text, you certainly must avoid the Arminian error of a falling away from grace permanently. It is true that believers can fall away temporarily; the Spirit of Christ permits them sometimes to fall into sin, so that for a time they have no conscious part with Christ. And for this there are many examples in Holy Writ. But they can never fall away absolutely and permanently. The saints in Christ are preserved by Him. Their calling and election is without repentance. No one can ever pluck them out of Christ’s hand. And therefore they will certainly be preserved and persevere even unto the end. Yet it seems that here in Heb. 6:4-8 there is mention of those that absolutely fall away, even so that they can never come to repentance again. Hence, when you preach on a text of this nature, you certainly will have to make the attempt to explain it in the light of your own system of the truth, according to which there is no falling away of the saints.
Nor is this interpretation so very difficult.
I, at least, explain the text as referring to those in the church that have a natural apprehension and a natural taste of spiritual things, without grace. They were once enlightened, that is, they have received the light of the gospel intellectually, so that they clearly understood its import. They have tasted of the heavenly gift. The heavenly gift is no doubt the fullness of grace, bestowed from heaven through the Spirit of Christ, including forgiveness, righteousness, peace, joy, and all the benefits of salvation. However, of it they have tasted. They have apprehended its preciousness with a purely natural taste, which is indeed very well possible. But yet they have no grace. They have become partakers of the Holy Ghost, by which I understand both the general and special gifts of the Spirit of Christ bestowed upon the church, such, for instance, as healing, tongues, prophesying, comfort, exhortation, and other gifts. And again, they tasted with a purely natural taste the good Word of God, good because of the blessed promise of eternal life. And they have tasted the powers of the world to come. The world to come is, of course, the glorious kingdom in which Christ is Lord and His people reign with Him over all things in the heavenly tabernacle of God. And the victorious powers of that age to come are experienced by believers in this present time. Of these powers these men have tasted. For a time they see the wonderful effect and the marvelous beauty of this age to come. But they have only had a taste of these powers, so that after all they have no living part in them. Indeed, the natural man can appear to be very close to the kingdom of God.
Yet, according to. the text these men fall away. And they fall away hopelessly, so that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. But were they after all converted once? When the text says that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance, does it mean to say that they were once regenerated and called and converted? In that case there would after all be a falling away of saints. But the author has in mind their former state as they appeared to the church and to the rest of the believers. They were baptized and went through the outward show of repentance, and they walked in that outward show for a time, and tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come; but in reality they never partook of saving grace. And so the text pictures them as those that have hopelessly fallen away from the church of Christ. For it says that it is impossible to bring them again unto repentance. The question arises, of course, impossible for whom? For God or for men? I answer: in a sense it is impossible for both. It is of course impossible for men in the first place because they can never renew; the power of renewal is not in them, but in God alone. But they can preach and they can admonish to repent. And when they do so, they find that the men that are mentioned in the words of Heb. 6:4-8 are hopeless, and all the attempts to bring them back to Christ are fruitless. But I say it is also impossible for God to bring them back to repentance. True, of course, in the absolute sense all things are possible for God. But in reality it is impossible to renew these men again to repentance because it is not His will. These men have become openly manifest as reprobate; and that is the deepest reason why they can never be brought to repentance again. God never lets His elect come so near the kingdom of heaven as did these men, in order then to let them fall away so deeply. That is only true of the reprobate. And they become manifest as antichristian. They crucify Christ afresh. They hate Him. They despise Him. And they treat Him as a criminal. They crucify Him afresh, that is, their crucifixion was much worse than the first crucifixion on Golgotha. These men understand that it is the blood of atonement which they shed; and they crucify Him unto themselves, so that they want no part in it and His atoning blood at all. They put Him to an open shame. They mock Him and condemn Him openly. And the terribleness of their sin and of their antichristian attitude is emphasized by the phrase the Son of God.
And notice the illustration with which the author concludes this passage. There is a field with the rain coming oft upon it. Under the influence of that rain, and of course, of the sunshine too, presently a two-fold crop appears: on the one hand, a crop of thorns and thistles; on the other hand, a good crop of grain.
In that figure the author explains how it is possible that some can fall away so hopelessly from the truth. They are the reprobate; the seed of sin is in their hearts, even as the seed of thorns and thistles was originally in that field. And the rain of the gospel coming oft upon those reprobate serves to bring to light the seed of corruption that was in their heart. And so the gospel is to them a savor of death unto death. But when the seed of regeneration is implanted in the heart of anyone, the rain of the gospel brings the fruit of repentance, righteousness, and eternal life.
Such would be my interpretation of this apparently difficult text.
But of course, we must explain it in the light of the current teaching of Scripture that there is no falling away of saints, and therefore, from the viewpoint of our system of doctrine.
In regard to the rest of the passages to which I want to refer I can be brief.
Let us look at the text that is so often quoted, it seems, especially by the Liberated, and that was quoted also by Prof. Schilder in our conference. I refer, of course, to .
Now again, I want to emphasize that you and I agree that Scripture never teaches a falling away of saints. How then can the text use such strong language, and speak of those that have trodden underfoot the Son of God and that have counted the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sanctified an unholy thing?
Commentaries, of course, as is very often the case in respect to difficult passages, leave us in the lurch. Lange, of course, does not hesitate to write: (DUTCH REMOVED). This is, of course, no explanation; nor can we subscribe to what he writes. Meyer does not write anything about the expression “wherewith he was sanctified”. Calvin only writes: “He calls it the blood of the covenant, because then only were the promises made sure to us when this pledge was added. But he points out the manner of this confirmation by saying that we are sanctified; for the blood shed would avail us nothing except we were sprinkled with it by the Holy Spirit; and hence come our expiation and sanctification.” Also this, of course, does not explain how one that has been sanctified by the blood of the covenant counts that blood an unholy thing. Grosheide, to quote no more, explains: (DUTCH REMOVED) But it is very difficult to understand just exactly what this means, and it certainly does no justice to the text. Schilder and the Liberated seem to think that we may understand by this sanctified a certain sanctification in an outward sense, in the same sense in which they understand the expression “sanctified in Christ” in the Baptism Form. But the trouble is not only that the text does not speak of such an outward sanctification, but that in the whole New Testament, at least, there is no mention of such a sanctification in that outward sense of the word. But what objection would there be to the explanation that these apostates from the faith in reality never have grace, never belong to Christ, but that they were sanctified by the blood of the covenant only according to their own former confession and according to their appearance as they belonged to the church of Christ in the world. Some such explanation seems to have been in the mind of the editor of Calvin’s commentary, when he writes: “He who professes the Christian faith, professes to believe in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, that Christ has shed His blood for many for the remission of sins.” One may belong outwardly to the church and may profess his faith and therefore by the church be considered a believer for a time and be considered as one who was sanctified in the blood of Christ without ever being a partaker of that same sanctification.
It is possible to explain the text in in the same way.
To my mind, it is possible to explain the participial phrase kai ton agorasanta autous despoteen arnou-menoi, “denying the Lord that bought them”, in a different sense, so that the phrase means “denying that the Lord bought them”, or in other words, denying the blood of atonement. But it certainly is also possible to interpret the words as meaning that they formerly professed to believe in the Christ that bought them with His own precious blood, although they never had a part with Him and with His atoning sacrifice.
For the rest, esteemed brother, it is certainly true that the ungodly are often a warning example for the godly not to walk in their way, but to fulfill their part (not parties) of the covenant of God and to love Him with all their heart and mind and soul and strength, to forsake the world, crucify their old nature, and walk in a new and holy life. We certainly have nothing against the preaching of conversion and of our calling to flee from sin and corruption and to walk as of the party of the living God in the midst of the world.
But never do I want to explain any part of Scripture in the Arminian sense. And I want to explain the whole of Scripture according to its own system not according to mine.