Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

Acts 2:39

The realization that the covenant view of Herman Hoeksema is, in its basic elements, the same as that of the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck opens up some very striking dimensions to the controversy which preoccupied the Protestant Reformed Churches for nearly a decade during the middle of this century; and it substantiates pretty much what Hoeksema always maintained, that his views were nothing essentially different from that which had been held traditionally in the Dutch Reformed churches. At the same time, moreover, it gives rise to another question: from where then did the position of Schilder and the Liberated Churches arise?

The answer to this question is not easy to arrive at, although a number of possibilities do suggest themselves. One that might seem rather natural to us would be that it came from Prof. W. Heyns, the Christian Reformed professor at Calvin College who taught essentially the same view in the early part of this century. This would be possible, since Heyns’ Manual of Reformed Doctrine was republished in the Netherlands during the 1920s and had not gone unnoticed. And yet the likelihood that a European scholar of Schilder’s stature would have turned to a minor theological figure in America for his ideas is rather remote. More likely it would be that Schilder and Heyns (who was himself an immigrant and thoroughly Dutch in his thinking) had came from a common background in the Netherlands. But what, besides the Secession tradition to which Bavinck and Hoeksema held, might that be?

While searching around in this direction we came upon another work which begins to give some answers to this question, an unpublished doctoral thesis by Dr. Anthony Hoekema, written in 1953 under the title, Herman Bavinck’s Doctrine of the Covenant. In it a number of very interesting ideas are brought to the fore.

To begin with, Hoekema lays to rest the idea that Heyns and Schilder may have represented another strain of original Secession thought, for he writes:

The fathers of the Secession of 1834 were all committed to the view that baptism, as a seal of the covenant of grace, signifies and seals regeneration. These men, among whom Smilde includes Hendrick DeCock, H. P. Scholte, A. Brummelkamp, and S. Van Velzen, believed that, by a judgment of charity, the baptized children of believers should be held to be sanctified in Christ (as the Dutch formula for baptism says), that is, regenerated, until the opposite appears from their life and walk. They did not commit themselves, however, as to the time of such regeneration: whether that occurs, as a general rule, before baptism, or later. This judgment of charity, furthermore, does not imply that every single baptized child is sure to be saved; there will always be chaff among the wheat; and hence there remains in the church constantly the need for earnest self-examination.

Apparently on this crucial point there was no such second strain. If Hoekema was correct, and we have no reason to believe he was not, there was a unity of opinion among the original Secessionist theologians which set them apart from the position of Heyns and Schilder on several critical points. This does not mean there was complete unanimity among them; for, in fact, much of what Hoekema suggests came from a book by E. Smilde entitled, Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop (A Century of Strife about Covenant and Baptism). There was evidently considerable and strong differences among those theologians, resulting in a century-long struggle centering in the covenant and its relation to baptism. Nevertheless, regardless of these differences, when it came to the identification of baptism with regeneration, and thus with the elect in whom alone regeneration can take place, there was essential agreement—setting them distinctly apart from the position which Heyns, Schilder, and the Liberated were later to take up. That position was not a part of the original Secession tradition, and must have come from some other source. But where? And with this again Hoekema is of help.

His study goes on to introduce us to another book, published in 1861 under the dual authorship of K. J. Pieters and J. R. Kreulen, with the title De Kinderdoop volgens de Beginselen der Gereformeerde Kerk (Infant Baptism according to the Principles of the Reformed Church). This book, Hoekema says, presented “a view of the covenant and infant baptism quite different from that sketched in the above paragraph.” It would appear therefore that this was a book which did not presume to agree with the Secessionist leaders which had gone before, but which took distinct exception to what they had taught. It was written, as Hoekema goes on to say, in “opposition to the point of view indicated above as that of the fathers of the Secession.” Pieters and Kreulen apparently were not satisfied with what was being taught as the Reformed view of baptism, and sought to set forth another view. Their claim was to be in accord with Reformed principles, but it differed from that which was being taught. It is well, therefore, that we give some attention to what Hoekema tells us they taught.

His description of their view begins in this way:

These authors, in setting forth their doctrine of the covenant, do not take their point of departure in God’s decree. They do not wish to identify election with the covenant of grace. They say that, when we consider baptism, we must let eternal election rest, and leave it aside.

The sound here is, of course, familiar. All through the history of the Christian church there have been efforts to mitigate what the Scriptures clearly teach concerning the decrees of God and His sovereign control over all things, particularly as they determine precisely and individually who shall be saved. This was true not only of those with whom Paul had to deal in the book of Romans, but continued on with the Pelagians, the Semi-pelagians, and the Arminians, all of whom gained a following in their day, only to be repudiated as heretical by the mainstream of the Christian church. But it is a drive that will not be stopped. As each new movement seeks to repudiate identity with the error that went before and to affirm its own orthodoxy, it tries again to do that in which the previous error failed, namely to separate itself from the implications of divine sovereignty, particularly in the doctrines of election and sovereign grace. So apparently it was with Pieters and Kreulen. They wanted to maintain that their views were in accord with Reformed principles, but at the same time they wished to escape the doctrine of election by making a wall of separation between it and the covenant of grace, especially in the practice of baptism.

This was no doubt because, through the centuries which had followed the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church and the solidifying of its doctrines at the great Synod of Dordt, there had grown an increasing concern with the doctrine of the covenant as it relates to the most intimate of spiritual relationships between God and His people in the line of continuing generations. In focusing on this, Pieters and Kreulen seemingly saw an opportunity both to maintain the doctrine of election abstractly, and to block its practical application. The doctrine of the decrees and election of God they wished to confess to be true, but something to be kept apart from the experience of the covenant in practical life.

But there is more, as Hoekema goes on to point out:

These men stress the two-sidedness of the covenant, and make much of the demands of the covenant, and of the conditional form in which God’s promises appear. The covenant promise, that God will take us to be His children and heirs, must not be interpreted as being equivalent to salvation, but must be understood in a covenantal way (verbondsgewijze): that is, objectively. The conclusion is inescapable, adds Smilde, that the covenant promise is here simply thought of as an offer of salvation, as that comes to the sinner in the preaching of the Gospel.

Here we see what these men had in mind. They, like those with whom Paul had to deal in Romans 6, clearly felt that emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation can only take away every sense of the need and responsibility to turn from sin and live a sanctified life. For that stress had to be laid on the demands, warnings, and threats of Scripture as incentives to live the sanctified life. The promises of God in the covenant are certainly real and sure, but only in an objective way. They tell us what God will do for those who subjectively show the willingness to meet the conditions which God requires of man. And, furthermore, unless this be true, there is no way in which man can ethically be held responsible for his sin.

Thus we come to baptism itself:

Baptism, so say Pieters and Kreulen, is not a seal of internal grace, but only a sign and seal of the promise of the covenant. That promise is, however, objectively represented. The forgiveness of sins and the adoption as children mentioned in the prayer of thanksgiving after baptism in the baptismal formula are not to be understood subjectively, but only objectively. Pieters calls the idea that infants before and at the administration of baptism must be understood to have already received the grace of regeneration a Baptist conception, and states that it conflicts with the practice of the Apostles. When the baptismal formula speaks of the children of believers as being “sanctified in Christ,” this is meant only in an objective sense, according to these men. The covenantal holiness of the children of believers must not be understood in any other way than merely as an objective dedication of these infants to God.

What it all comes down to in the end is the meaning of baptism. According to the primary theologians of the Secession, as we have seen, baptism is a sign and a seal of regeneration. It is an external and visible sign of what God promises to do by sovereign grace in the hearts of the covenant children of believing parents. It is not in every child, for the principle of divine and sovereign election also here certainly applies; for they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. Nevertheless, God has promised that He will keep his covenant in the line of generations, and by a “judgment of charity” we are to look upon them as children of God until it becomes evident that they have not been touched by His grace.

With this, however, Pieters and Kreulen were not satisfied. They wished both to limit the covenant on the one hand and broaden it on the other. They did not want the promise of the covenant to include what God would do unconditionally in the hearts of covenant children. And they thought they could escape this by simply identifying the covenant with the promise objectively, that is, with the external expression of the promise. Children of the covenant are “sanctified,” not in the sense that God works faith, forgiveness, and salvation in the heart, but in the sense that He makes these available to every baptized child—if that child will meet the conditions which He sets forth. This He does the same for all. Baptism is an offer of salvation which is made to every child baptized within the church of God.

All of this, Hoekema tells us, Herman Bavinck distinctly rejected; and several provincial synods struggled with its propriety. But there can be little question that what was taught by Prof. Heyns and defended by Klaas Schilder was essentially set forth in this same vein.

They hold, as did Pieters and Kreulen, that the covenant must be kept separate from the decrees of God, and particularly from the doctrine of election. While not denying the reality of predestination, they wanted it kept separate from the practical reality of life set forth in the covenant. According to them, bringing predestination into the practical realities of life can only discourage human effort, as well as remove moral responsibility for sin of all kinds.

The emphasis to be made in the covenant, for Heyns and Schilder as it was for Pieters and Kreulen, is upon the demands and warnings of God as conditions which man must fulfill according to the covenant of grace. This, and not sovereign grace, holds the key to Christian life; and the covenant is the objective statement of the promise of God as to what He will do for those by whom the conditions are met.

Baptism, therefore, is not a visible sign of the inner spiritual reality which takes place when the Spirit of God cleanses and implants a new heart, but an objective statement of the conditional promise which comes to every baptized child regardless of whether or not he be elect and will ever receive the gift of regeneration and faith.

All of this, when it was presented by Prof. Heyns to Herman Hoeksema in his school days, Hoeksema rejected as emphatically as had Bavinck in his day, which in turn did much to prepare him for the struggle with the Christian Reformed view of common grace, permeated as it was with this “Heynsian” scheme of thought. When then the rumble of these same ideas began to come across from the Netherlands after the Second World War, Hoeksema found it hard to believe that they were also held by his friend Klaas Schilder, especially when Schilder personally assured him that he did not agree with Heyns, and his differences from us were only in terminology and emphasis. Literally for years Hoeksema waited to receive an explanation, until the conclusion could no longer be escaped that Schilder and the Liberated were in fact not only committed to the same Pieters/Kreulen covenant view Heyns had held (and thereby to the common grace implicit in it), but were also determined that the teaching of it should be allowed in our churches as well. Then he knew that our position would have to be once more set forth positively and without compromise, which was done in the “Declaration of Principles.” And with that the pen of Schilder, so long silent concerning our differences, began to flow with a series of articles which have now been published under the title, Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger, to which we must turn next.