As far as the doctrinal issue is concerned, the difference between the synodical churches (nicknamed “synodocratic” by the leaders of the secession) and the liberated churches centers around a question related1 to the historical realization of God’s covenant, in connection with the closely related question as to the meaning of the sacraments, particularly that of baptism.
It does not concern the problem of the covenant as such. As we said before, this was never made an issue.
The controversy is concerned with the question: who are in the covenant as it is realized, and reveals itself in this world?
Or, stated more specifically, it revolves around the question concerning the relation of infants, children of believers, that are baptized, to the covenant of grace.
And this question is discussed in connection with a certain aspect of the meaning of the sacraments, especially that of baptism as it is administered to infants.
Is the covenant established with Abraham and all his seed, with believers and all their children, or is it established only with the elect ? If the former, in what sense are all baptized children really in the covenant? If the latter, on what basis can baptism be administered to all the children of believers promiscuously? Do the sacraments presuppose and seal actually present grace in those to whom they are administered, or do they obstinate and seal the promise of God? If the former, the question arises again: how can the sacrament of baptism be administered to little children? If the latter, the question must be answered: if the promise’ is for all, how is it to be explained that it is not realized in all, and that many fall away when they come to years of discretion?
These are some of the questions that were in debate before the Synod of 1939-1942, which that Synod sought to answer by official decrees, because of which official declarations (made binding for all) the liberated churches separated, and that are now more widely and hotly discussed than before 1939.
Let us try to understand the difference between the two groups of churches.
We shall, for the sake of clear distinction, indicate the two groups by the names “synodical churches” and “liberated churches”. We must remember, however, that this is not their official name. Both groups call themselves Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches. For a while the group that seceded added in parentheses “liberated according to Art. 31 D. K. O.” But at their first synod (Enschede, Oct. 8, 1945) they decided to drop this addition, so that their official name is simply “Gereformeerde Kerken.” However, in our discussion, we must somehow distinguish them, and, therefore, we shall denote them by the terms “synodical” and “liberated” churches.
Now, the synodical decisions of 1942 follow, in the main, the view of Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr. with respect to the baptism of infants.
This theologian, who in his day exerted a deep and widespread influence upon the life and doctrine of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, approached the question concerning the validity and meaning of the baptism of infants from the aspect of the question concerning the sacraments. Sacraments, he argued, are signs and seals instituted by God in His Church for the strengthening of the faith of those to whom they are administered. They are means of grace, means whereby it pleases God to impart grace to His people through the Holy Spirit. It follows, then, that they presuppose faith in those that receive and partake of them. Unless, at the moment when the sacraments are administered, there is an operation of the Holy Spirit, through the sacraments, to strengthen the faith of the partaker, there is no sacrament; and unless there is faith in him that receives the sacrament, there is nothing to be strengthened; hence, seeing that sacraments seal and strengthen faith, actually existing, present grace, they can be administered only where this faith, or internal grace is present. Now, if the question is asked: how, then, can infant baptism ever be a real sacrament, seeing that the little children cannot as yet perform the act of faith? Dr. Kuyper answers that, even though they cannot perform the conscious act of faith, the power or faculty of faith, given with regeneration, may be in the smallest infant as well as in the adult. Now, if infants as well as adults are comprehended in the covenant of grace, as we believe, we may conclude that God regenerates them in their infancy, and as such, as regenerated children, “sanctified in Christ”, they receive the sacrament of baptism, and the Holy Spirit applies it to them unto the sealing and strengthening of the work of grace already begun in them. In fact, according to Kuyper, through baptism little infants receive a very special kind of grace, which, it would seem, they cannot receive in any other way, although in just what this “baptismal grace” consists he does not succeed to make clear. Well, then, in this way it becomes very clear that infants as well as adults have a right to baptism, and that, when they are baptized, there is a very real administration of a very real statement. Infants are baptized on the ground of their “supposed regeneration.”
Now, the Synod of 1942 did not adopt this view in so many words, but they plainly favored it, and virtually made it official.
It is in this light that their declaration must be understood that “the seed of the covenant must be considered regenerated and sanctified in Christ until, as they grow up, the opposite appears.” This supposition they read into the Baptism Form. When parents that present their children for baptism are asked, whether they acknowledge “that although our children are conceived is born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and, therefore, as members of his Church ought to be baptized?” they understand by “sanctified in Christ” true, inward, spiritual holiness, regeneration, but apply this to all the children of believers as a supposition. The parents, answering this question, really declare that they suppose that their children, all the children of the Church are sanctified in Christ and members of the Church, and that on this supposition they present them for baptism. When the Church declares in the thanksgiving after baptism: “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise thee, that Thou hast forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism,” they take these words in their real, spiritual sense, apply them to all the children of believers, but again base this entire thanksgiving on a supposition. We suppose that the children are sanctified in Christ, on this supposition we give thanks to God for their salvation as actually having been accomplished.
The covenant, they hold, is established only with the elect; but in baptism we suppose that all the children of believers are elect and regenerated.
Although the Synod of 1942 did not literally declare all this, we may safely say that this is, in the main, the view of the synodical churches.
This is corroborated by many statements in the “Prae-advies” and in the “Toelichting,” as well as by arguments presented later in defense of the synodical declarations.
Moreover, the same view underlies the declaration of point 4: “The church must conceive and deal with the members that are admitted to the Lord’s table, according to the same judgment of love,” i.e. on the same supposition, that they are regenerated and sanctified in Christ.
And it is with this in mind that the Synod declared in its first point: “that the covenant of grace is of such fundamental significance for the life of faith that the preaching as well as all other work of the Church must proceed from it”; i.e. preaching and all other work must proceed from the supposition that all the members of the church visible are regenerated and sanctified in Christ.
Now what, in opposition to this synodical view, do the liberated churches teach with regard to these matters?
They, too, just as their synodical opponents, want to declare something with respect to all the children of believers. This they have in common. Both are dealing with the question as to the state and position in the covenant of all baptized children. And also the liberated churches want to assert something concerning the salvation of them all. Only, they do not want to speak of suppositions. To this they are strongly opposed. Again and again, they object that by speaking of suppositions the very basis of assurance is removed upon which the children of the covenant may claim that God has indeed established His covenant with them, that He is their God, and that all the blessings of salvation are really theirs. Hence, they seek something positive, something objective, something that may be said about and to all the children of the covenant that is more than a supposition, that is, in fact, indubitably certain.
This positive, objectively certain ground they find in the promise of God.
The idea, the very essence of the covenant they find in the promise: “I will be your God.” Notice that this is the Heynsian covenant theology.
That infants as well as adults are comprehended in the covenant of grace, therefore, means that theirs is the promise of the covenant. This promise is for all the children of believers. God, in His part of the covenant, promises to all that He establishes His eternal covenant of grace with them, adopts them as His children and heirs, incorporates them into Christ, gives them forgiveness of sins and eternal righteousness and life, that through His Holy Spirit He will dwell in them, apply unto them all they have in Christ, sanctify and preserve them, until they “shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.”
Here is something objective, something everlastingly sure: the promise of God!
On the basis of this promise, all the children of believers that are baptized are really in the covenant. One does not deal in suppositions here but in certainties. It is on the basis of this certainty, that the promise is for all the children of believers, that they are baptized. Sacraments do not obstinate and seal internally present grace, but the promise of God. The sacrament of baptism is administered to infants, not on the ground of supposed regeneration, but upon the command of God, and because theirs is the promise as well as for the adults.
But this promise dare never be separated from its condition or demand! Gabe and Aufgabe may not be divorced!