Again a few issues have intervened since we last wrote on this subject (cf. Oct. 15, 1983 issue). Permit me, therefore, briefly to establish the connection with what we have previously written.
In connection with our calling to be specific, i.e., our calling to give expression in clear, pointed, unambiguous, exact, and antithetical language to our distinctive Protestant Reformed position, we have been calling attention to the main lines of that distinctive Protestant Reformed position. Historically, our position stands inseparably connected with the origin of our denomination in 1924, that is, it stands connected with the entire common grace controversy. It is in distinction from the errors of the Three Points of 1924 that we maintain and proclaim the truth of sovereign and particular grace. This position we briefly outlined in our previous article.
But we have not stood still since 1924. It is not a static position which we as churches occupy. There has been development during the half century since our churches came into existence.
This is true, first of all, quite in general. Any denominationdevelops as far as its doctrinal and ethical position is concerned; and that development is naturally along the lines of the fundamental position it has taken and the fundamental course it has chosen. No church or group of churches stands still. As long as they continue to hold to their fundamental position—whether that position be doctrinally sound and confessional and Scriptural, or whether that position be the opposite—there will be movement, development. Such is life. It is impossible to stand still. Secondly, this has been true of us as Protestant Reformed Churches. It has also been true of our mother church, the Christian Reformed denomination. When you compare where we stand today, A.D. 1984, as over against where we stood in relation to one another sixty years ago, the difference is appalling. Then, sixty years ago, we both stood at the beginning of our separate ecclesiastical paths; and the differences, while significant and fundamental already at that time, did not appear nearly as wide then as they do today. At that time it would have been possible realistically to speak of reconciliation and of reunion. In fact, that very idea of reunion was proposed and discussed as late as 1939, at the occasion of the first visit of Dr. Klaas Schilder to this country. Today such reunion, realistically speaking, would be impossible—even if it were sought. The differences and the degree of difference in almost every area of ecclesiastical life have become too great to make such organic union possible; we have grown farther and farther apart. Now this is not merely due to the fact that our mother church has departed farther and farther along the course chosen in 1924. It is also due to the fact that we as Protestant Reformed Churches have developed positively along the lines of the fundamental course set in 1924. We have not changed fundamentally, but we have developed. Think of the vast amount of distinctively Protestant Reformed literature which has been produced over the years. Think of the some sixty volumes of the Standard Bearer. True, there has in the nature of the case been much polemics. But, in the first place, it is simply a fact that there never is and never has been positive development of the truth without polemics. This is simply due to the fact that no church lives in a vacuum, and due to the fact that the truth is developed antithetically. And in the second place, anyone who turns to those volumes of our magazine will discover a gold mine of positive exposition of the truth of Scripture and the Confessions. Think of the fact, too, that especially in more recent years there has been produced in our churches a distinctive Protestant Reformed literature in the form of dozens of books and brochures and pamphlets. Think, too, of the fact that our Protestant Reformed Seminary has over the years developed and is still developing its own instructional materials in virtually every branch of theology. No, we have not stood still—not by any means!
In the third place, I refer specifically to the fact that there has been development on the part of our Protestant Reformed Churches in the whole area of the truth concerning God’s covenant with believers and their seed and, in connection with this, in the area of the truth concerning the promise as being absolutely unconditional.
Also this development did not simply drop out of the sky, so to speak; but it stood connected with our history.
Nor, on the other hand, did this history suddenly begin circa 1950-53, at the time of our differences with the Liberated Churches of the Netherlands, differences which became internalized in our own denomination and which led ultimately to the schism of the De Wolf group.
The fact of the matter is that our distinctive position with respect to the covenant as the relation of friendship between God and His elect people in Christ Jesus, our distinctive position with respect to the promise of God being absolutely unconditional, and our distinctive position with respect to the entire organic idea of believers and their seed came to development in close connection with our distinctive position over against the errors of 1924. It had been developed many years before there was such a thing as the Liberated Churches and their theological position.
How did this come about?
The whole idea of a general, conditional promise to all the children of believing parents had been promoted for years and years in the Christian Reformed Church, already prior to 1924, by Prof. W. Heyns, the man who may be termed the father of the First Point of 1924 and its general, well-meant offer. Already in his own student days the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema had been exposed to this teaching—though already at that time he could not agree with it. But the point I am now making is, first, that due to the influence of Prof. Heyns the whole ministry of the Christian Reformed Church for some two decades was infected with this covenant view of Heyns. At the same time we must remember that this idea of Heyns was but an aspect of the broader idea of the general, well-meant offer in the preaching of the gospel to all who hear that preaching. It is the application of that same fundamental idea to the specific area of the covenant and baptism and to the children of believers.
At the same time, it must be remembered that there was another current idea of the covenant and of baptism in Reformed churches, the idea of presupposed regeneration, the view promoted by Dr. Abraham Kuyper.
It was in that situation that our Protestant Reformed Churches developed their position. They could accept neither position—precisely because both involved a denial of the particularity of grace and of the promise. It was in that situation that the idea of the covenant as the relation of friendship between God and His elect people in Christ Jesus was developed. It was in that situation that our Protestant Reformed Churches maintained—and this was stated later in the Declaration of Principles—that the promise is not general, but particular; that it is not an objective bequest to all children of believing parents which is dependent for its realization on its acceptance by those children, but that it is an oath of God that He will infallibly lead all the elect unto salvation and eternal glory through faith. It was in that situation that our Protestant Reformed Churches maintained from their beginning that all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone; that God’s promise is unconditionally for them only; that the promise of God bestows the objective right of salvation not upon all the children that are born under the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, not upon all that are baptized, but only upon the spiritual seed.
True, this position came under attack when the Liberated Churches of the Netherlands virtually adopted the position of Prof. Heyns and when they sought contact with us and affiliation with us in Canada circa 1950. True, this position began to be denied by some of our own men at that time, by some who wanted to “cater” to the Liberated. True, the controversy came to a head in a certain respect in connection with the statements of De Wolf which were condemned (on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions!) as literally heretical. True, too, our position was articulated in the Declaration of Principles which was adopted as a form for the organization of prospective churches (not as a fourth form of unity, as some alleged).
But this position and this development of the truth took place already long before the controversy of 1953. In 1953 that fundamental position, under the stress of controversy, was brought into clearer focus and was articulated.
And it still belongs—let us never forget it—to our fundamental and distinctive position as Protestant Reformed Churches.
Without that fundamental position as I have briefly outlined it in this and preceding editorials on this subject, we have no right of existence as churches. Without it we are fundamentally like many, many other churches. Some may be more conservative, some less. That is merely a difference of degree, not of fundamental principle.
But remember: with that fundamentally distinctive Protestant Reformed position goes not only the right and the possibility of being specific, but the calling!