Controversy and Confusion over the Covenant: Is it not time to settle it? (4)

Previous article in this series: April 1, 2011, p. 292.

Almost 450 years ago, God used outstanding Reformation theologians like Bullinger, Calvin, Ursinus, and Olevianus to initiate the development of the doctrine of God's covenant of grace. Since then the work on this glorious doctrine has continued, but is far from finished. In fact, confusion and controversy mark the current status of this central doctrine. To Reformed believers, this ought to be intolerable. We should be crying out for a resolution. 

Two possible ways were outlined in the previous editorial—ways in which the Reformed churches could seek to settle the controversies over the doctrine of the covenant. Perhaps some have other suggestions. 

The burden of this editorial is this: If the Reformed churches do come together with this excellent goal, they ought to include the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. For this, I will make a case, and even a plea. 

Why the PRCA? 

The PRCA ought to be included in such a Reformed gathering, first, because she is part of the Reformed branch. Historically, many of our members trace their lineage back to the cradle of the Reformed churches, the Netherlands. More importantly, all the members trace their spiritual lineage to the Reformed church in the Netherlands, most through the Secession (De Cock, Van Raalte, et al) or to the Doleantie of Abraham Kuyper's day. That is our heritage, and we have not forsaken it. 

Secondly, with all faithful Reformed denominations worldwide, the PRCA maintain the Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism is faithfully preached Sunday after Sunday. Officebearers sign the form of subscription honestly, and they keep their vow to uphold all the doctrines and articles of the Reformed confessions, and reject all errors repugnant thereto. These confessions are not moldy documents gathering dust on the top shelf. They are not vitiated by revisions. All three confessions are part of the life of the churches, including catechism classes for our covenant youth. 

I do not mean to imply that the Protestant Reformed Churches are higher or better than others in their commitment to the creeds. I express it simply because surely the minimum requirement for participation in any serious discussion on the covenant is: honest commitment to the Reformed confessions. 

Which Confessions? 

As an aside, the question might arise, which confessions should be honored? To put it differently, ought a deliberative body meeting for the purpose of setting forth the biblical doctrine of the covenant to include both Reformed churches and Presbyterian? In my judgment, yes, emphatically. As stated in the first editorial, the term "Reformed churches" includes all churches harking back to the great sixteenth-century Reformation— those churches, at least, that remain faithful to the truths of sovereign grace. 

Personally, I would hope that a Reformed church (now in distinction from Presbyterian) would take the lead, simply because their theology has developed more consciously covenantally. The doctrine of the covenant is woven into the very fabric of the Reformed theology of the Netherlands. 

However, that is not to say that Presbyterians have nothing to contribute or that they ought not contribute. They do, and they ought to. Numerous Presbyterian theologians have written works on the covenant of grace. Besides, the Westminster Confession contains explicit teaching on this doctrine, no less than a complete chapter. 

But perhaps you wonder, can Presbyterian churches and Reformed churches truly come together on the doctrine of the covenant, and affirm one doctrine in unity? I know that they can. The Protestant Reformed Churches in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia agree on the doctrine of God's everlasting covenant of grace. If this be possible between the PRCA and a Presbyterian denomination solidly committed to the Westminster Standards, surely it can be done more broadly among Reformed and Presbyterian churches that maintain their respective confessions. 

But I digress. 

The question is, why ought the PRCA be included in a discussion on the covenant? 

In addition to what has been said, I contend, and do so in humility, that the PRCA have something to offer to the discussion. They have something positive. They have something constructive. And, again in humility, I maintain that they have something of value to bring into the discussion. I have five reasons for this assertion. 

First, the doctrine of the covenant is precious to the PRC. Truly this doctrine is dear to our hearts. It is preached. It is discussed in public speeches and private conversations. And the covenant is lived—reflected in marriage, reflected in our schools, and reflected in the congregational life. God has put this love for His covenant into our hearts and lives. 

Second, the doctrine of the covenant is tied to our very origin. Perhaps you were unaware of this. Most know that the PRC's origins are connected with disputes over common grace and the well-meant gospel offer. Some eighty-five years ago, three ministers and their consistories were deposed for refusing to sign the "Three Points of Common Grace." Less well known is the fact that the leading theologians of the PRC—Herman Hoeksema, Henry Danhof, and George M. Ophoff— were covenant theologians even in their days in the Christian Reformed Church. 

Of special significance is that, already in the third volume of the Standard Bearer, Rev. Hoeksema began writing Believers and their Seed (articles on the covenant and the place of children in it). These articles opposed especially the views of Professor William Heyns of Calvin Theological Seminary. Hoeksema was setting forth the covenant doctrine that is in harmony with sovereign, particular grace, and in opposition to the covenant of Heyns, based on common grace. Thus, you can see that the doctrine of the covenant maintained in the PRC arose out of the very origin of the PRCA
. It is imbedded in our history. 

Third, the doctrine of the covenant became the defining doctrine of the PRCA. This doctrine became even more imbedded in Protestant Reformed history and theology through a lengthy controversy. This controversy started in the 1940s, and led to a grievous split in the denomination—a split over the doctrine of the covenant. It was unpleasant, painful, and very damaging to the denomination—no church would ever want to go through such an ordeal. Yet, through it, a certain additional clarity emerged. Hundreds of Standard Bearer articles expanded on the doctrine. Protests and appeals had to be treated at the levels of consistory, classis, and synod—all on the covenant. Few denominations have paid such a heavy price for settling the doctrine of the covenant of grace. Over one-half the members left, over two-thirds of the ministers, and all the denominational funds departed. 

But out of the bitter struggle emerged not only conviction concerning the covenant, but clarity of thought. Not only a love for the doctrine, but a profound appreciation for its importance. 

Fourth, doctrinal development continued in the PRC. The battered, diminished churches survived the schism. Gradually she regained her strength. Preaching was not merely negative (against common grace), but positive, with a particular emphasis on the covenant. Solid, biblical sermons set forth, defined, and applied covenant theology. Ministers and professors led the way—writing articles in the SB as well as in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, delivering speeches, and penning pamphlets and books.¹ 

They were setting forth the doctrine of the covenant. They were developing its implications for home, church, and school, and especially the place of children in the covenant. This concentrated attention to the covenant continues to the present day—witness the articles on Bavinck's covenant theology featured in the two previous SBs, a portion of an upcoming publication on the covenant. 

Finally, the PRC ought to be included in the discussion because their covenant doctrine is, at the very least, within the bounds of Reformed theology. Not everyone in the Reformed camp will concur with the well-defined doctrine of God's everlasting covenant of grace which is maintained in the PRC. I am well aware of that. However, none may honestly say that the covenant doctrine of the PRC is so radical that it is outside the bounds of Reformed covenant theology. 

On the contrary, Herman Hoeksema developed his doctrine in close relation to that of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, especially the latter. It is a pity that Hoeksema in his Reformed Dogmatics did not state where he was explicitly agreeing with the covenant theology of Bavinck and/ or Kuyper. He tells us where he differs with these theologians. But he does not much point out those areas of his covenant theology (the majority, in my estimation) that agree with these theological giants. Calvin did the same in hisInstitutes—pointing out serious differences that he had with theologians of the past, but not often pointing out with whom he was agreeing. 

I am not criticizing Calvin and Hoeksema. Their intent was not mere historical theology, that is, simply stating what others taught. Rather, their intent was, first, to show that their theology was 1) in harmony with the confessions, and 2) drawn from and based on the Bible. Second, Hoeksema was following exactly what he identified as the work of a dogmatician. His definition of "dogmatics" is significant.

Dogmatics is that theological discipline in which the dogmatician, in organic connection with the church of the past as well as in the present, purposes to elicit from the Scriptures the true knowledge of God, to set forth the same in systematic form, and, after comparison of the existing dogmas with Scripture, to bring the knowledge of God to a higher state of development.

Notice that a theologian works "in organic connection with the church of the past." Hoeksema did that. He stood on the shoulders of Kuyper and Bavinck. And yet he knew that it was his duty to do more than merely repeat what they said. After evaluating and comparing their teaching with Scripture, he rejected what in their theology he was convinced was not in harmony with Scripture. Yet the foundation of their theology remained, and Hoeksema built on that, seeking to bring the knowledge of God's covenant to a higher state of development. 

But do not take my word for it. Read Herman Hoeksema's Reformed Dogmatics on the covenant. Read Bavinck's Reformed Dogmaticsin the new English translation. You will be struck by the unity of thought and expression, the agreement that Hoeksema has with Bavinck. 

That theology of Hoeksema is essentially the same as what is taught and preached in the PRCA today. The doctrine of the covenant has been, I believe, brought to a higher state of development since Reformed Dogmatics was published fifty years ago. But the point is, this doctrine is at the very heart of Reformed covenant theology—that of Kuyper and Bavinck. 

The Protestant Reformed Churches have something to contribute. 

The Protestant Reformed Churches would love to contribute. We have a zeal for the covenant, and a burning desire that the church, in organic connection with the church of the past and present, set forth the doctrine of the covenant that is both biblical and confessional. 

Some are put off by the PRC. We might leave the impression that we think we are always right. Convicted, we are. Always right, we are not. A knowledgeable PRC member will be humbled by the fact that H.H. himself changed (was wrong on) his theology of God's covenant with Adam before the fall, and on the significant matter of remarriage after divorce. We can learn. Only this we ask: Demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions when and where we err. 

Some are put off by our perceived attitude. Pride, self-righteousness are condemnations laid at our collective feet. I respond with words sometimes published by Herman Hoeksema: "Nothing human is foreign to me." Pride lives in every human heart. If we write in pride, God will, and in various lamentable ways, has, humble(d) us. At the same time, do not mistake our zeal for the truth, for pride. And do not account all passion as pride. There can be a righteous anger against those teachers of theology who know, ought to know, the truth, but who rather lead the people astray! Surely Isaiah and Jeremiah were not guilty of pride or self-righteousness when they vehemently confronted the lie of the false prophets! 

For all that, I again plead with the Reformed church world to settle the disputes. Reject the errors disseminated under the flag of federal theology. Define the covenant; spell out the glorious doctrine of God's everlasting covenant of grace. 

Whether this is done by serious discussion at ecumenical (Reformed) gatherings, or at a particular synod to which Reformed churches are invited to send delegations, or some other way, it must be done. For God's glory. For the protection of the sheep. 

And if, by God's grace, this is attempted, then I plead, give the PRC a place at the table. Even if it be at the far end of the table. 

May God grant it.

Prayer of John Calvin after lecture on Ezekiel 17: 

Grant, Almighty God, since thou hast deigned to enter into a perpetual and inviolable covenant with us which thou hast sanctioned by the blood of thine only-begotten Son, that we may faithfully stand to it; and may we be so obedient to thee unto the end, that we may experience thee a propitious Father to us, until we enjoy that eternal inheritance which thou hast prepared for us in heaven, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

¹ The interested reader can easily investigate this by searching the Journal at www.prca.organd viewing the books and past SB volumes at

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