Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
If there was one thing central to our difficulties with the Liberated churches, it was certainly to be found in their view of the covenant of grace. To them it was crucially important; to us it presented endless problems.
As we have noted at various times in the past, the difficulties in the Netherlands during the thirties were perceived to arise primarily from an atmosphere of dead orthodoxy which had settled over theGereformeerde Kerken. But to this there was an exception; and it centered in the Dr. Klaas Schilder. His preaching in the churches and his writings in theReformatie were receiving a great deal of popular attention. Thus it was concluded, by those who followed Dr. Schilder, that the general deadness in the churches was due to the speculative, scholastic approach to theology followed by so many of their leaders and preachers, with their emphasis upon a number of the favorite teachings of Dr. Abraham Kuyper: a supralapsarian approach to election, justification from eternity, immediate regeneration, common grace, and particularly his covenantal view that infants are to be baptized on the basis of a presumption that they are regenerated even though according to the doctrine of election it is not necessarily so. This scholastic approach caused a sense of smugness and deadness within the churches, which focused their attention more on debating abstract theological issues than living the Christian life. Of these Kuyperian doctrines Schilder took a different and essentially opposing view. Infralapsarian in his approach to election, he maintained justification in time; regeneration through the preaching of the Word; a considerably milder form of common grace (limited to a favor of God toward his creation in general 1); and a view of the covenant which emphasized the positive nature of its promise, while including the commands of covenantal responsibility. But it was with this covenant concept, in the end, that we had our greatest difficulties.
Perhaps as great among our problems as any was, and continues to be, the determining of exactly what it is that the Liberated have in mind with their views. They claim them to be simple and direct and easy to understand; but the gist of their thinking we cannot seem to grasp. The problem may well be, as we have pointed out in the past, that the Liberated people work with a different concept of logic, that is, a different standard for determining what is right and true. This was probably the case already in the forties when Rev. Hoeksema repeatedly approached them with requests that they explain how their view of the covenant could be harmonized with the basic and traditional principles of Reformed theology, but never received a clear answer. Nor was it essentially different in the more recent debate between Prof. Engelsma and Dr. DeJong of the Clarion magazine. Although the debate went on for some time, our problems with the Liberated view of the covenant never seemed to get answered, while we were repeatedly accused of misrepresenting them and of imposing a logical scheme of thought upon the matter—as though being logical is somehow an undesirable thing. Their commitment would appear to be, as we have tried to explain, to the not uncommon use of a rhetorical logic, which is satisfied as long as something can be made to sound reasonable, without requiring a true harmony and consistency throughout.
It is no doubt in this sense as well that the Liberated covenant view is considered to be quite simple. To them the covenant of grace consists basically of two things, a direct bestowal of the covenant promise on every child who is baptized—primarily as set forth inGenesis 17:7, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee”—together with a continuing demand for faith and obedience. It was this, it is thought, that came through in the preaching of Dr. Schilder, and made it so relevant and powerful with the people. He spoke the promise of God with definitive authority, while laying before his hearers the responsibilities which must accompany it; and, in doing so, he escaped the speculative uncertainty of so many who went about discoursing on such obtuse subjects as election and reprobation, while concluding with the suggestion that people should examine themselves subjectively as to which of these applied to them. The result was, in the view of his followers, that the preaching of Dr. Schilder spread through the Netherlands like a breath of fresh air, restoring spirituality and life where everything had become dormant and dead.
Now there can be little doubt but that in those days Dr. Schilder did arouse a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in spiritual matters, and that this stood in sharp contrast to the often dry preaching found in many of the churches. Whether this was due, however, to Dr. Schilder’s doctrinal positions, or to his rhetorical abilities, and to his bold anti-establishment pronouncements—even against the invading Germans when they came—is perhaps an open question which can never be answered and must be left to the judgment of God. What is certainly true is that the Liberated view of the covenant would seem not to be anything new, but essentially to correspond to an old traditional position which had often been maintained before.
This traditional view had, for example, been commonly taught in the Christian Reformed Church in its early years, particularly by the Prof. W. Heyns in the seminary. In his teaching he defined a covenant, in general, as God’s way of dealing with man by placing him before “promises of life if he should, and threatenings of death if he should not do that will of God, thus leaving the decision to him.”2 And this latter was certainly the crux of the matter. It was Prof. Heyns’ way of leaving the final decision as to who should be saved, at least rhetorically, in the hands of man, which came through again when he applied this general definition to the covenant of grace:
The Covenant of Grace is that special institution for the salvation of man in which the Triune God binds Himself with a covenant and an oath to the believers and their seed, to be their Go4 their Father, their Redeemer, and their Sanctification, and binds them to Himself to be His own and to serve Him, thus insuring their salvation, unless they break the Covenant by unbelief and disobedience.3
And then to this definition he added next a number of ambivalent qualifications. He maintained that this covenant is “one-sided” but in such a way that there are two parties within it upon which its fulfillment is dependent.4 He called it “Unbreakable,” but in such a way that it can be broken by sin.5 And it is “Unconditional,” but in such a way that man as a party in it must fulfill the conditions of faith and obedience in order to remain within its bounds and receive its benefits.6
In rather typically Arminian style he both affirmed a principle of Reformed theology; and then so qualified it as to make its opposite true as well. And so too he went on to add three more significant points: This covenant includes a covenantal grace for all its participants.7 The purpose of the covenant is to “encourage and strengthen faith in the promise.” The covenant must not be seen as established only with the elect, but with all the children of believers. 8
It was this doctrine of the covenant that was taught by Prof. Heyns during the years Herman Hoeksema was in seminary; and it was to it, perhaps more than anything else in his seminary education, that Hoeksema objected. In his view it was nothing less than Arminianism applied within the covenant of grace, inasmuch as it extended to every baptized child the grace and expressed desire of God that he should be saved.
Thus it was, when after the war a relationship began to develop between our churches and the Liberated, that Rev. Hoeksema met this with a degree of careful reserve. On the one hand, he had great sympathy for the Liberated people and their new churches, due to the way in which they had been highhandedly ejected from the Gereformeerde Kerken, much as we had been from the CRC in 1924, except that this was even more crassly done, in that it was brought about under the cover of a devastating war. He could empathize with them completely. And, in turn, he had a strong attraction to Dr. Schilder personally, and as a theologian. They had worked together so well and constructively during the doctor’s brief visit here, and there was always that hope that someday they would be able to take up once more where they had left off. But Rev. Hoeksema was a realist; and it was evident in his reading about the theological conflict in the Netherlands, that the Liberated view of the covenant held a jarring similarity to that of Prof. Heyns which he had rejected so emphatically in his seminary days. He wanted to believe that the Liberated theologians had some way of avoiding the clear Arminian implications of that view, but ask as he would they never came to explain how it was so.
And so he waited as patiently as he could, until the immigrants began to come over to this country. Those who came from the Liberated churches were being advised to join our churches, and it became necessary to explain to them that they should expect to hear from our pulpits a covenant view quite different from any they had been taught in the Netherlands. And then Rev. Hoeksema was silenced by his severe stroke, just at the time when Dr. Schilder was coming here for his post-war visit. The result was, of course, that they were unable to engage in the kind of theological discussions for which they had so long hoped. Little was accomplished in this regard, on a theological level, until there came the greatest shock of all. It was in the form of a brochure by Dr. C. Veenhof under the nameAppel! (in English, “Appeal!”). Here was a man who had corresponded with Rev. Hoeksema often, and who would have been expected to know our covenant view and at least treat it with respect. Instead, however, this pamphlet was as full of crass Heynsian statements as one could possibly imagine. Presented as an explanation of their break with the Synod of the Dutch churches, it put forth a view of the covenant expressed in statements so bluntly Arminian that one can hardly escape its implications, as can be seen from but a few quotations:
Above all we must know and maintain this; through faith we must also see that God, our God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself baptizes the little children of the Church! When a child is baptized the LORD Himself comes to that child, He Himself sprinkles the water on its head and says very really and personally: John, Mary, Anna, I, the LORD Himself, baptize you in my Holy Name. You are now of me!”
That baptism, which has been performed by the LORD, always remains of power, eve y day, every hour, until our death, yea to all eternity. It is essentially so that the Lord continuously baptizes us. He sprinkled us with water when we were but a few days old, He always keeps, so to speak, that water fresh and living and powerful upon our foreheads. And the Word which He first spoke, He continues to speak through our whole life! Every second Jehovah repeats: Carl, William, Mary, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Or, better said, Jehovah does not repeat that Word, He continues to say it. It continuously comes to us, earnestly and graciously out of His heart, in unbroken power….
It should ring in our hearts: The LORD baptizes us and continues to baptize us from day to day and hour to hour. He said once and continues to say now from day to day and hour to hour: “I am the LORD your God and you are completely mine” . . . .
To rightly understand what this means we must surely know and always hold fast that the LORD in His wondrous love has thought it good to give all the children of believers His promise. Or, in other words: it has pleased Him to express to those children a glorious pledge. That is, He says to all those children, head for head, day in and day out, meaningfully and sincerely: “I am the LORD your God. I establish my covenant with you. I wash you from all sin in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; My Holy Spirit lives in you. In short: I declare to you the complete forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation: all the treasures and riches of which I can and will give to mankind….
And there was much more. These were not just passing remarks. They were put forth as the heart of the Liberated covenant view; and to us they were little short of astounding. The Liberated spoke of the dangers of baptizing on the basis of a presumption; and yet what could do more to arouse false presumptions than this blanket assurance of grace to everyone? The Liberated spoke of the need to maintain the veracity of God; but, if this was to be given as an unwavering promise to every baptized child, when we know from Scripture, as well as from experience, that many go astray and live out their lives in unbelief and sin, how can a divine veracity be maintained? And regardless of whether the Liberated like it or not, do not the Scriptural teachings of election and reprobation clearly state that such affirmations simply are not so? It all stood in direct conflict with everything we saw to be Reformed.
1 This view was later dropped, perhaps in deference to us.
2 Prof. W. Heyns, Manual of Reformed Doctrine, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1926, p. 67.
3 Ibid. p. 125.
4 Ibid. p. 127-130.
5 Ibid. p. 130.
6 Ibid. p. 130.
7 Ibid. p. 136, 137.
8 Ibid. p. 150-152.