The 60th Anniversary of the “Declaration of Principles”: A Commemoration* (cont.) – An Analysis of Its Contents (1)

Previous article in this series: November 1, 2011, p. 62. * Second installment of the text of the address given at the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) on September 22, 2011 at Faith Protestant Reformed Church, Jenison, MI.

General Observation

The Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches, adopted by the synod of 1951, is an eight-page document in the back of the Acts of Synod, 1951 and a twenty-page document (because of bigger print) in the back of the book, The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.1

It is a synodically adopted statement of some basic truths—”principles”—about the covenant of grace, as these basic truths were always maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) from their beginning in 1924. Since 1951, these basic truths are the official, declared, “settled and binding” position of the PRC.

The Declaration is not a thorough, systematic presentation of the covenant in all its aspects. Deliberately, synod named it a declaration of principles. As Dordt confessed five important truths of the gospel of grace in response to five denials of the gospel by Arminianism, so the Declaration affirms fundamental truths of the covenant in response to particular errors advanced on behalf of a conditional covenant.

The truths concerning the covenant that the Declaration affirms are fundamental. But there are important truths about the covenant that are not mentioned in the Declaration, for example the headship of Christ of the covenant. There is no definition of the covenant. There are also truths that are only suggested, not expressly stated, much less defended, for example, the truth that election governs the covenant. Nevertheless, the fundamental truths that the Declaration affirms imply the truths that are omitted, or only suggested.

In the preamble, the Declaration states that the PRC have “always” maintained these principles. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, proponents of a conditional covenant within the PRC argued that the PRC had no definite, official doctrine of the covenant. Therefore, they were permitted to introduce the doctrine of a conditional covenant. According to the letter, they were right. According to the spirit, however, they were wrong.

In the early days of the PRC, indeed up to the late 1940s, Herman Hoeksema, George Ophoff, and all the other ministers taught the doctrine of the unconditional covenant. Hoeksema wrote his important book (in Dutch), Believers and Their Seed, announcing the unconditional covenant as the distinctive doctrine of the PRC and condemning the doctrine of a conditional covenant as Arminianism, in the early 1920s. As Hoeksema painstakingly demonstrated in the controversy over the covenant in the early 1950s, the condemnation by the PRC of common grace, especially the common (resistible) grace of the well-meant offer of salvation, is the condemnation of a conditional covenant. The doctrine of a conditional covenant teaches common, resistible grace in the sphere of the covenant.

The relation between the well-meant offer as adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in the first of its three points of common grace and the doctrine of a conditional covenant explains the otherwise mystifying opening line of the Declaration, which is a condemnation of the three points of common grace.

By the adoption of the Declaration in 1951, the letter caught up with the spirit. What had been fact in the PRC then became law. God’s grace is not common in the sphere of the covenant, with regard to the physical children of believers—common both to those who are saved and to those who perish.

A third general observation about the contents of the Declaration is that the Declaration is the application of the Reformed creeds to the great issues concerning the covenant that were contested in the PRC. The Declaration is the “expression” (such was the word used at the synod of 1951 to describe the relation of the Declaration to the creeds) of the Reformed creeds concerning those issues. To say it differently, the Declaration is the appeal to the Reformed creeds in support of the unconditional covenant, and in condemnation of a conditional covenant.

The Declaration is not, and was not intended to be, a fourth creed in the PRC alongside the Three Forms of Unity.

One of the main arguments against it by the foes of the Declaration in 1951, as ever afterwards, was that it is a fourth “form,” or confession. Closely related was the charge against the Declaration by Dr. Klaas Schilder, who understandably watched developments in the PRC with great interest. Schilder complained that the Declaration was “Bovenschriftuurlijke binding: een nieuw gevaar” [ET: “Extra-Scriptural Binding: A New Danger”]. This was the title of the series of articles Schilder wrote immediately after the adoption of the Declaration by the PRC.2 Recently, Canadian Reformed theologian Jelle Faber renewed Schilder’s attack on the Declaration, referring to it as the “infamous Declaration.”3

Both the charge that the Declaration is a fourth creed and the charge that it represents the binding of Reformed people apart from Scripture are obviously false. The Declaration is almost entirely quotation of the Reformed creeds, including the Reformed baptism form. More than ninety per cent of its contents are quotation of the creeds.

To settle the controversy over the covenant, the PRC tested and decided the issues by the standard of the creeds.

This is proper. This is necessary.

This is Reformed.

There is no quotation, much less explanation, of Scripture, other than the texts quoted by the creeds themselves. There is hardly any explanation of the creeds. There is almost no argumentation.

An illustration is in order. One of the issues in the great covenant controversy in the PRC in the late 1940s and early 1950s (as it is one of the issues in the contemporary controversy of Reformed orthodoxy with the heresy of the federal vision) was the question whether faith is a condition that the covenant child must perform, or a gift of God to the covenant child. On the basis of the Reformed creeds, the Declaration denies that faith is “a prerequisite or condition unto salvation” and affirms that faith is “a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.” The Declaration adds: “This is plainly taught in the following parts of our confession.” It then quotes Question 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Article 22 of the Belgic Confession, and Articles 10 and 14 of the third and fourth heads of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt.

There is no explanation of these passages in the creeds. The creeds are clear, indeed explicit, on the issue. And the creeds are conclusive for a Reformed church. They are the end of debate. They are the end of controversy. So evidently is the Declaration confessionally Reformed that even the opponents were hesitant to criticize its contents. Their criticism took this form: We agree with the contents in the main, but we judge the Declaration to be one-sided, imbalanced, and, above all, unnecessary. At the synod of 1951, which would adopt the Declaration over the objection of Classis West, that part of a divided committee of pre-advice that expressed Classis West’s opposition to the Declaration gave this advice to synod:

As Synod, we do not reject this Declaration of Principles as such; but rather reject the action which gave rise to it, and express that we agree with the essential thrust of it, which does not mean that we bind ourselves to its formulations.4

The decisive vote adopting the Declaration at the synod of 1951 (the Declaration was adopted by a majority of only one vote) was a minister from Classis West, who later left the PRC with the schismatics. He openly stated his agreement with the contents of the Declaration as expressing the teaching of the Reformed confessions.

… to be continued.

1 Declaration of Principles, in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 412-431.

2 This series has been translated into English and published as part of the book American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism, by Jelle Faber (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1996), 55-167.

3 Faber, ibid., 51.

4 Reported in Concordia 8, no. 10 (June 21, 1951), 5.