Last time, we began an examination of the dream of Dr. Robert Godfrey. The dream is deeply flawed be­cause it minimizes denominational unity and is church politically unsound. But the problems with his dream run deeper. It is an artificial attempt to bring about a fervently desired unity by brushing aside significant dif­ferences and minimizing the deep divisions that exist in the Reformed church world over substantial issues.

In the case of the PRC, these deep divisions are the fruit of erroneous synodical decisions approving common grace and the well-meant offer. The dream attempts to find the lowest common, Reformed de­nominator and hopes the differences will work out. His dream will “force all of us to ask with new focus: what does it mean to be Reformed and what must others believe and do for us to recognize them as adequately Reformed?” (Modern Reformation, 16-17).

These are two very different questions—as different as being Reformed and being adequately Reformed. The one asks about a standard of Reformed orthodoxy. The answer is that the standard is the three forms of unity and the Church Order of Dordt. The other asks how many concessions can be given without compro­mising an artificially contrived unity and implicitly pro­poses another standard of unity than the confessions. The answer is nothing in the three forms of unity and nothing, in principle, in the Church Order of Dordt can be compromised for the sake of unity.

As is apparent from the outline of his recent speech to NAPARC, Dr. Godfrey quoted Reformed theolo­gian Herman Bavinck approvingly as support for his (Godfrey’s) dream.

Bavinck, however, in the very section that Dr. God­frey quoted, taught that “the idea of a single, all inclusive church institute” is “forever disturbed” by the observable development of true and false churches in history. Ac­cording to Bavinck, the doctrine of the true and false church recognizes and gives reasons for divisions and schisms in the development of the church in history. The Reformed “forever disturbed” the idea of a “single, all-inclusive church institute” when they taught the distinction between the true and false church.1 Cer­tainly Bavinck had in view a church institute including all nominally Christian churches, but the principles of what he says are applicable to a dream for an all- inclusive nominally Reformed church institute.

Furthermore, Bavinck writes that in light of the many divisions, schisms, and discord, “it is understand­able that repeatedly many Christians have allowed themselves to be led astray by the attempt to bring about or to maintain this fervently desired unity of the church of Christ, either by violent means—especially by the strong arm of the state—or artificially by syncretism and fusion.”2 Any attempt at unity by syncretism or fu­sion Bavinck calls being “led astray” and “artificial.”

He concludes his section on the real church in his­tory with its observable—in some cases deplorable, and in other cases necessary—divisions, with a twofold point about the role of Jesus Christ, the king of the church, in all schism:

He reigns also over the divisions and schism of his church on earth. And his prayer for unity was not born of unfamiliarity with its history nor from his inability to govern it. In and through the discord and dissension, that prayer is daily heard and is led to its complete fulfillment. The profound spiritual sense in which the unity of his disciples was understood by Jesus necessarily excludes all violent and artificial attempts to introduce it.3

These are remarkable, almost unbelievable, lines from Herman Bavinck, a participant himself in what may be called a forced union of the A and B churches in the Netherlands that was never satisfactory. Dis­sension is governed by Christ. Christ’s prayer is led to its complete fulfillment in and through discord and dissension. And the prayer of Christ for unity excludes in its meaning any artificial attempt to introduce unity. Christ brings about unity, it exists perfectly in Him already, and in due time it will be accomplished and manifested.

The dream of Dr. Godfrey for a single Reformed general assembly is fundamentally syncretism. It is a syncretism that may not take the egregious form of Jehoshaphats or of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, but for that reason it is more dangerous and misleading. It speaks of unity in the truth and of the importance of the confessions, but allows wide latitude in the inter­pretation of those confessions, and brushes aside deep differences over the meaning of those confessions. It talks to truth and unity and at the same time casts unity as a separate goal from truth, when in reality they are one and the same. In his dream is a subtle separation of truth and unity.

Although he says that he wants true unity, a unity in the truth, and that unity must be based on the confes­sions, a unity that he says will differ from Rome’s co­erced unity and the artificial unity of Rome and liberals, one is left wondering how extensively someone in God­frey’s Reformed general assembly could undermine the confessions before he would no longer be considered “adequately Reformed.”

For instance, could these two interpretations of the confessions exist side by side? Could one teach a universal, saving grace of God offered to all men in the preaching of the gospel; a universal non-saving grace of God to the reprobate ungodly in rain, sunshine, and earthly prosperity; a restraint of sin in the reprobate’s heart and the doing of good works by the reprobate ungodly? And could another in Godfrey’s general assembly teach that God is gracious only to His elect people and blesses them only? History tells us this is impossible. The proponents of Arminian, universal grace cast out the teachers of confessional sovereign, particular grace. The date was 1924.

Or, could these two ideas of the covenant exist side by side? Could one teach that God is gracious to all the baptized children, promises salvation to all of them alike, and allows many of them who receive these promises to fall away into everlasting perdition? Could another teach that God is gracious to the elect, and them only, promises to them only, and preserves them infallibly unto eternal salvation? Once again history tells us otherwise. The teachers of an Arminian, con­ditional covenant tried to cast out the teachers of the confessional, unconditional covenant, but Christ sover­eignly reigned over that attempt to reject a conditional covenant, to sharpen the Reformed understanding of the covenant, and to preserve a testimony to sovereign grace in the covenant. The conditional covenant and the unconditional covenant are completely at odds with one another. The date was 1953.

And regarding these two examples, evident in the dream is a note that discounts apostasy—apostasy in the Reformed church world—as a necessary reason for the division among Reformed churches. If the entire Reformed church world is divided only over the reasons that Dr. Godfrey suggests—“different time of origin, different ethnicities, different issues leading to forma­tion, and different histories”—and the “issues” leading to formation are only akin to ethnicities and times of origin—then the entire Reformed church world is chargeable with schism and sin against the unity of the church. If that is all that is keeping today’s various Reformed denominations apart, then there is nothing at all that should hinder the dream from becoming reality. It could not be the church political monstrosity proposed by Dr. Godfrey, but a true federation of Re­formed churches, a Reformed denomination of North America. But that would be looking at the world—the Reformed world—with rose-colored glasses. That would be to ignore history—Reformed history—in which, and in all the divisions of which, Christ the king of the church rules and through which He has realized His own prayer for unity.

There are reasons that Reformed churches must remain separate even though they officially claim adher­ence to the Reformed creeds. The reason for the Prot­estant Reformed Churches involves substantive issues leading to their formation: the error of general grace to the reprobate in the preaching, common grace, and the casting out by unjust and illegal deposition faithful ministers who opposed the error of general grace. The issues involve sovereign grace in the covenant. The is­sues involve the truth of the confessions and practices clearly and plainly contrary to Scripture, about which it is impossible to budge or to accept teachings different from the confessions.

If NAPARC is serious about unity, then I would propose the following agenda for discussion within that body:

  1. Is common grace confessional?
  2. Is the well-meant gospel offer confessional?
  3. Is the conditional covenant confessional?
  4. Is justification now and in the final judgment by faith or by faith and works?

This last proposition would be necessary because at least two of the member denominations of NAPARC have exonerated men accused of teaching this federal vision heresy on the basis of their equally erroneous conditional covenant theology developed by the federal vision. Several other NAPARC member denomina­tions presently are afflicted with federal vision or have produced study committee reports that purport to deal with it but refuse to condemn it as heresy. It is the great­est single issue facing the Reformed church world since Dordt, and at stake in this issue is nothing less than the retention of the Reformed faith’s teaching of sovereign grace—in the covenant—as expressed in the creeds. To date NAPARC has said absolutely nothing.

Discussion of these issues would be a worthwhile endeavor toward unity. It might not issue in a massive Reformed uber-denomination of the kind envisioned by Dr. Godfrey. In fact, if the confessional answers are given to those questions, it will likely make a very small NAPARC, but it would make for a great deal more unity.

If headway is made on those doctrinal propositions, NAPARC could add the following items of a doctrinal- practical nature to the proposed agenda:

  1. Is divorce and remarriage biblical?
  2. Is labor union membership biblical?
  3. Are different interpretations of the days of Gen­esis 1 tolerable in light of Scripture and the creeds?
  4. Is the Bible a human, error-filled book, especially as it relates to the Old Testament history of creation, the origin of man, and the flood?

Let the Reformed church world start here. Then there could be serious talk of unity. Anything less is “artificial” and “leads astray.”

* Previous article in this series: April 1, 2012, p. 301.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 4:316.

2 Bavinck.

3 Bavinck, 317.