The Covenant Question

I.  Method of Study, or Approach:

A.  In our study of all theological questions we must come to an understanding through a study of the historical background of the question. For a mature and confessional stand it is therefore our first obligation to orientate ourselves with  the work and discussion on the question in the past. When we begin thus we do not imply that a Scriptural study is unnecessary or secondary. Thorough study of Scripture is basic and necessary for coming to any conclusion in theology for theologians and laymen alike. However, the questions and problems of the covenant appear as men study the Scriptures, not in the Scriptures themselves. And to come to our own conclusions we must become acquainted with the problems first, whereupon we as individuals must in all humility consult the work of others, and especially the work of the church in the past as it spoke about these problems.

1.  More particular introduction:

a.  We may argue the above position in society upon the following questions:

1)   What is our approach to the study of the Scripture?

2)   Is it biased by confessions and theology?

3) What is our approach to the study of theology?

4) What is the value of the study of the covenant for other studies?

B.  To make any study worthwhile for societies and individuals, we ought to have in mind all available material for collateral reading, and attempt by some manner of means to obtain it and at least peruse it! It is very difficult for me to advise you, partly because my own reading on the subject is still limited, and partly because much of the reading on the subject is in the Holland language.

1.  Standard Bearer Vol. XXII, pp. 29-402: XXVI, Current Series on Held. Cat.

2.  God’s Tabernacle With Men, Rev. H. H., pamphlet issued by Sunday School of the First Prot. Ref. Church.

3.  In The Midst Of Death, Rev. H. H„ pp. 112-127, chapter on the covenant with Adam.

4.  There are other English works, but I have not read them well enough myself to place them on the list. Perhaps I shall give them later.

5.  For a history of the struggle in the Netherlands it is well to have some histori­cal work. I don’t know of any in our language except Prof. D. H. Kromminga’s “Christian Reformed Traditions”.


II.  Historical Background:

A.  Apostolic Times. Strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless true that the issue of the covenant as it is debated today and in the last centuries, also was a burn­ing question in the days of the apostles. It did not deal with the term covenant as it appears today, but it was treated nevertheless as a reality together with the issue in connection with it.

1.  In the epistle to the Hebrews the Old Covenant is compared and explained in the light of the New covenant.

2.  The issue of circumcision had the implications in the days of Paul and Peter as it has since also. In our day the same errors adhere to some conceptions of baptism as e.g., to Judaistic ideas about circumcision. How?

3.  The discussion of law, and of Christian liberty as answered by Paul in his epistle to the Galatians treats the same problems connected with discussions of conditions and demands and also of the preaching of the Gospel and our responsibility.

4.  This question, therefore, must be answered in the light of the absolute answers of the New Testament anti the apostles and must never be left hanging in the air as to the fundamental issues answered in the Bible. The same dangers of heresy must he realized and warned against, for they are not new ideas, but the same old objections that have always crept in.

B.  In Post-Apostolic Times:

1.  The Judaistic controversies appeared again and finally reached a high-point in the issue with Marcion. What is the teaching of Marcion In a certain respect Barth has been accused of Marcion heresy. How so?

2.  The church fathers dealt with the problems we deal with in the covenant when they treated the question of the law and gospel.

3.  And the Roman Catholic Church tradition erred in teaching of the essence of religion in its emphasis upon its liturgical forms and in its wrong use of the law and gospel as it followed the Pelagian error.

C.  The Reformation Period:

1.  Especially to the Reformers do we turn for the beginnings of our rich theo­logical heritage. In the days of the Reformers the teaching of the Scripture on the covenant was brought to a more special emphasis. And ever since that time whoever reads and studies Reformed theology must realize the importance of the treatment of the covenant. Karl Barth also shares the interest in the subject as he treats it in his third volume of Dogmatics.

2.  This is true of Calvin, but not in the same special sense as in other reformers. Calvin made the treatment of the covenant subordinate to the doctrine of the Trinity, it is said.

3.  The pronounced attention that was given to the subject is to be traced to Zwingli, Bullinger, and then to the German theologians Olevianus and Ursinus. These last, who were authors of our Heidelberg Catechism, also published treatises on the subject of the covenant which appeared thru the years 1576-’85.

4.  This had great influence upon theologians in Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, and Netherlands. Reformed theology since then became known as “federal theology”.

5.  In the Netherlands it occupied the minds of the Reformed theologians in that period when Reformed theology was in its flowering days, up to 1650, when the influence of the schools and still later of philosophy and rationalism can be seen to appear. Such theologians as Junius, Gomarus, Trelcatius, expressed themselves upon it.

6.  England also saw a development of the subject by its theologians who were educated by the Reformeds in Geneva. It is claimed that the Scottish theo­logian, Ball, was the most influential, who wrote a pamphlet on the subject at the time of the Westminster Assembly as it was drawing up its confession. I have in my possession an old book of 447 pages, published in 1678 in London by Rev. Wm. Strong on “A Discourse of the Two Covenants. This work is a Scriptural study throughout and shows a keen understanding of the problems involved; which again is evidence of the early interest in many lands, among all theologians on this Biblical subject.

D.  The Last Century—to date.

1.  Dr. Smilde wrote a book, “Een Eeuw Van Strijd Over Verbond en Doop”, (A Century of Debate About Covenant and Baptism). This indicates the his­torical background of the last century.

2.  In the Secession of 1834 the leaders of the movement had differences which were in connection with baptism first of all and so with the implications of the covenant question. (Such men as Hendrick De Cock and Brummelkamp).

3.  These differences continued in the history of the group through its union with the movement under Dr. A. Kuiper and is the background later of the discussion in the Netherlands and, of course, is our background too, for we are children of the Secession and the Doleantie. There was, always, as a result of this, a sort of division in the Netherlands, the opposite sides of which were called the “A and B groups.’’

4.  This question was treated in the Synod of the Secessionists in Utrecht in 1837 and on following Synods. Again when the Secessionists joined with Dr. Kuiper’s group, in 1905. The Synod of Utrecht attempted to satisfy both groups by giv­ing five conclusions. This quieted the sharpness and bitterness of the groups but never satisfied the theologians as to the questions about the covenant and baptism. Each group continued to maintain its own emphasis. The Christian Reformed Church in America adopted the Conclusions of Utrecht in 1908—which our Protestant Reformed Church has not done.

5.  Finally the differences again broke out with much bitterness and strife preced­ing and during the last war. The trouble now revolved around the declara­tions of Synod 1942-1944, and the deposition of Drs. Greydanus and K. Schilder.


III. Our Appraisal (of the historical background):

A.  If we study the debates we can see how some of the material show’s lack of under­standing one another. This, however, gives us no light to minimize its importance or to dismiss it. It also shows how personalities play a large part in debates on Biblical questions. Again, this should not cause us to shy away from important questions.

B.  Historical study should cause us to avoid the errors of the past and to profit from its fruit.

1.  In a careful study of these debates upon theological subjects it always be­comes evident that some do not understand the real issues, their deep implications, and become warm against a certain view or for it, and unwittingly fall into error. As a result there is much bitterness of personal friction.

2.  On the other hand there is always the age-old struggle between the truth and the lie.

3.  Some questions for discussion:

a.  Will our American Reformed theology ever show an interest in this dis­cussion on the covenant?

b.  Will our Protestant Reformed people rise above narrowmindedness, short­sightedness, personality difficulties, or will we merely repeat the same mis­takes and errors of the past?

c.  Will we seek to confess the Reformed truth clearly in all spheres of life? Or will we show the same impious disregard for the creed and doctrinal con­tributions of the past as is the cancer of the American churches?

d.  Should we take the attitude that discussion should be limited to the theo­logians, and that we should avoid it in our church papers and in our societies as much as possible?