Dr. J. Faber The Confessional History of the Canadian Reformed Churches - Dr. J. Faber


Taken from Clarion Vol. 48, No. 4, 5, 6, Feb. 19 - March 19, 1999

*First delivered at Wellandport, Ontario on May 9, 1998 and subsequently also in a similar evening at Wyoming, Ontario on October 2, 1998. The speaking style has been retained.  

Let me first make some remarks about the title of our topic. The heading of this evening reads 'The Unity of Christ's Church - Our Responsibilities Today." This heading is clear. In the invitation we were reminded of the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in John 17 and of the mandate by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4. It is the messianic prayer for the unity of those who are his and the apostolic mandate to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. We may be thankful for the clear Scriptural focus of this evening. it does not need any explanation at this moment. However, it is a different matter with the implication of this prayer and the application of this mandate. This meeting is convened by a Canadian Reformed Church in a United Reformed church building. Also the speakers and their topics make it obvious that this is a get-acquainted meeting especially for United Reformed and Canadian Reformed brothers and sisters. Given the main heading of this meeting - the unity of Christ's church - it is clear that we are together tonight with a view to possible organic union of our church federations. In this context I was asked to deal with the confessional history of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

When we think of this specific title, the question arises: What is meant by the words "confessional history"? We could take this expression in the sense of "the history of the confessions."

The Canadian Reformed Churches adhere to the three ecumenical creeds and the Three Forms of Unity. These are our confessions and these confessions have a history within the Canadian Reformed Churches. There is a history of the text of these confessions. The Canadian Reformed Churches have modernized the English text and in the course of this process they have even made some changes in the content of the confessions. It is an interesting and important topic but it is not our topic tonight.

Then there is the binding to the confessions and it is also a topic of confessional history. In the short history of the Canadian Reformed Churches there has, for example, been a case of a minister who was suspended from his office, since he refused to sign the form of subscription to the Forms of Unity. Synod Edmonton 1965 declared this suspension justified and in accordance with the church order. I regard this 1965 confessional decision an important moment in the history of the Canadian Reformed Churches but the binding to the confession is not our topic tonight.

'We are together tonight with a view to possible organic union of our church federations. [1]

When we speak tonight about confessional history, we do not focus on the original or text of the confessions or the binding to the confessions. But the United Reformed Churches and the Canadian Reformed Churches have, by and large, the same ecumenical creeds, the same Three Forms of Unity and the same Form of Subscription. Let us first and foremost thankfully and joyfully recognize this fact. For it underlies precisely our unity of faith and the endeavour for the union of our federations. We would not be here tonight, if we did not have the substance of and the binding to our confessions in common. However, the question tonight in this get-acquainted meeting is this: How did and do those confessions function in the life of our churches?

How did the history stamp our character and refine our identity?

The United Reformed Churches is a rightful continuation of the Christian Reformed Church of North America as it came about in 1857. The Christian Reformed Church was established by immigrants from the Christian Seceded Reformed Church in the Netherlands.

The Canadian Reformed Churches were formed in 1954 by immigrants from the (liberated) Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. We have, therefore, in common not only our confessions but a Dutch Reformed history that reaches back to 1571 and stretches till 1857. And even after it was established the Christian Reformed Church maintained strong sister church relations with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Our break-point basically is 1944, the year of the Liberation. It will not amaze you that the Liberation will receive special attention in my sketch of the confessional history of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

I would like to start with our common point of departure, the 1834 Secession from the Netherlands Reformed Church. I take you then on a short trip along four other stations. They are the Doleantie of 1886, the Union and its confirmation (1892 and 1905). Then follows a longer stay at the station of the Liberation in 1944. I will end with a few words about the necessity of establishing the Canadian Reformed Churches at their first Synod of Homewood-Carman (1954) and about our common calling today in 1998.

1. Secession (1834)

Historically, many of the families of the Canadian Reformed Churches, especially those from Groningen and Overijssel, derive their genealogical lineage from the Seceders. Almost all our first ministers studied at the Theological School in Kampen, called the School of the Secession. The very fact that the United Reformed Churches and we have the Secession of 1834 as a common background makes a broad exposition of our historic bond unnecessary. Nevertheless, in connection with the topic of tonight I make three remarks about the confessional aspect of the "Afscheiding van de Nederduits Hervormde Kerk."

1.) The Secession proclaimed again the total depravity of man and the sovereignty of God's grace. The Secession was anti-Arminian or more broadly put anti-humanist. One of the first publications by "the father of the Secession," Hendrik de Cock, was a reprint of the Canons of Dort. [1]

2.) My second remark is that this emphasis on God's sovereign grace did not exclude an indiscriminate preaching of the gospel. In the preaching a rich Christ was offered to a poor sinner. Helenius de Cock, the first dogmatician of Kampen, wrote about his father that Hendrik de Cock did not make election into a condition for the preaching. [2]
3.) The third remark is that the Secession was not sectarian but a truly Reformed ecclesiastical movement. The Act of Secession or Return begins with these words:

we, the undersigned Overseers and members of the Reformed Congregation at Ulrum, have for a considerable time noticed the corruption in the Netherlands Reformed Church, in the mutilation of the denial of the doctrine of our fathers founded on God's Word, as well as in the degeneration of the administration of the Holy Sacraments according to the ordinance of Christ in his Word, and in the near complete absence of church discipline, all of which are marks of the true church according to our Reformed confession, Article 29.

Anthony R. Brummelkamp was a brotherin-law of Albertus C. Van Raalte, the founder of Holland, Michigan, and was one of the first Seceded ministers. He told that in an encounter Hendrik de Cock "in all simpleness read to the people Article 29, also 27 and 28 of our Confessions of faith, not because he wanted them to make the confession the rule of their faith, but to prove that what he did was simply to execute what we, Reformed people, there confess to be the calling of us all according to God's Word.[3]

Let me end this discussion of the Secession of 1834 by stating that the identity of the Canadian Reformed Churches is shaped also by these confessional characteristics of the "Afscheiding": the proclamation of the sovereignty of God's grace and at the same time of the covenantal responsibility of man as professed in the Canons of Dordt. We are seriously addressed in the indiscriminate preaching of the gospel, and we are called to simply obey God's Word also with respect to the church, as confessed in Art. 27-29 of our Belgic Confession .[4]


"The Secession was not sectarian but a truly Reformed ecclesiastical movement. "


II. Doleantie (1886)

We stepped into the train of our confessional history trip at 1834 and now arrive at the Doleantie of 1886. Here we meet the powerful figure of Abraham Kuyper. Although he himself never used this expression for his own reformational movement, in fact he became the leader of a second Secession from the Netherlands Reformed Church. He fought against the modernism of the theological training he himself had undergone at the University of Leiden. He forcefully attacked the socalled higher Scripture criticism. In his first principal's address at the Free University in Amsterdam in 1881, he spoke of the danger of this criticism of Scripture for the congregation of the living God.[5]

Kuyper maintained his battle against modernism in his actions together with his colleague F.L. Rutgers and other ministers and elders of the church in Amsterdam. it led to the Doleantie of 1886. In this year 1998 we commemorate Kuyper's journey to North America and his famous lectures on Calvinism at Princeton University.

When I try to characterize Kuyper's confessional influence upon us, Canadian Reformed people, I think of his splendid defense of the form of subscription and with respect to its contents I am especially reminded of Lord's Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It is the confession of office. There is the office of Christ. "Let Christ be King" was the apt title of Dr. L. Praamsma's reflections on the life and times of Abraham Kuyper.[6] It speaks of Christ's kingship over his church. Together with Rutgers, the man of church polity, Kuyper advocated the autonomy of the local congregation under Christ the King over against the hierarchism of church boards in the Netherlands Reformed Church. But Christ's kingship is not restricted to his church. There is no inch, there is no corner of human life of which Christ who is sovereign of all, does not say: "It is mine!"

Immediately connected with this office of Christ is the office of all believers, again not only in church but in the totality of life. The Doleantie as a moment in the confessional history of the Canadian Reformed Churches shows its effect also in an emphasis on the cultural mandate. Schilder's book Christ and Culture and his reminder of the ongoing antithesis in world history is an indication of the influence of Kuyper, even though Schilder had his criticism on Kuyper's terminology of "common grace." The concept of the cultural mandate of all believers played a role in the life of our Canadian Reformed immigrants.

It is needless to say that the defense of the autonomy of the local congregation was later taken up in the struggle of the Liberation. My beloved teacher Dr. Saekle Greijdanus, who died just fifty years ago in this month of May, was in church political matters a true disciple of Rutgers. Already in 1928 at the Synod of Assen and in the years before and during the Liberation of 1944, Greijdanus rejected synodicalism and defended the church political principles of the Doleantie even over against Dr. H.H. Kuyper, Abraham's son. But before we deal with these later events, we have to leave the Doleantie of 1886 and first arrive at Union station. We come to the Union of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, brought about in 1892 and confirmed in 1905.

III. Union (1892) and its confirmation (1905)

In the year one thousand eight hundred and ninety-two after the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, on the seventeenth day of June, at one o'clock, a General Synod of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands was convened and begun in the name and the fear of the Lord.

Thus reads the beginning of the Acts of the combined session of two synods in Amsterdam. it is phrased after the beginning of the Acts of Dordt and the wording as such indicates the significance of this historic event. In 1892 happened what is rightly called the miracle of the nineteenth century. The churches of the Secession and of the Doleantie came together to form The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands .[7]

I am always amazed about the fact that this Union of those who had left the Netherlands Reformed Church in two movements more than fifty years apart happened so quickly. While the first separate Synods of Seceders and Dolerenden after 1886 were held in 1888, already four years later the Union between them was established.

One can only regard this as a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit who brings about true fellowship or communion. If we look at the actions of the brothers involved, one may say that they showed that their secessions from the Netherlands Reformed Church had not been motivated by a spirit of separatism or sectarianism but by true ecumenicity that seeks to manifest the catholicity of the church of God in the unity of the true faith.

The union of 1892 came about because the brothers did not bind one another on anything else but the obedience to the Word of God and the acceptance of the historic constitution of the churches of the Reformation in the Low Countries, namely the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of Dordt.

To be sure, Synod 1891 of the Christian Seceded Church had formulated some conditions. They wanted to retain the principle that the church has the calling to have its own theological institution for the training for the ministry. They did not want to give up their own Theological School in Kampen. This condition was accepted and in line with this principle the Canadian Reformed Churches have established their own Theological College in Hamilton.

Other important conditions were the following: The united churches must be acknowledged as true and pure churches according to the Confession and Church Order. It must be mutually agreed that the breaking of ecclesiastical fellowship, not only with the Boards of the Netherlands Reformed Church, but also with the members in a corporate and local sense is demanded by God's Word and the Reformed confession, and is therefore necessary.

I hear in these conditions for union a reflection on Kuyper's speculative ideas on the church. He publicized them, among others, in his Treatise on the Reformation of the Churches and in a pamphlet on Separation and Doleantie. [8] One may think of his distinctions between essence and existence of the church, invisible church and visible church, church as organism and church as institute, and his later theory of the pluriformity or multiformity of the church.[9]

I hear in the conditions for the Union of 1892 that the brothers of the Secession, although they did not want to exclude another form of reformation - namely, that of the Doleantie - nevertheless were convinced that there should be a royal binding to and a faithful application of Art. 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession.

" The union of 1892 came about because the brothers did not bind one another on anything else but the obedience to the word of God and the acceptance of the historic constitution of the churches of the Reformation in the Low Countries, namely the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of Dordt. "


We also hear this reference to the binding confession in the answer the last Seceded synod gave to an objection to the proposed Union. The objectors wrote: "We cannot acknowledge as Reformed what lately Doleantie leaders publicly taught concerning regeneration and holy baptism." Synod answered that the union would take place on the basis of unity in Reformed confession and church order and that points of dispute could be addressed to the authorized ecclesiastical assemblies in order there to be adjudicated. The basis of the united churches would be Holy Scripture and, subject to it, the three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of Dordt.

The doctrinal divergences continued to be discussed also after 1892. In 1905, formerly seceded brothers published Five Thesis against the theological constructions of Abraham Kuyper and like-minded and addressed them to all consistories and members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

Among, the authors were professors such as L. Lindeboom and M. Noordtzij and ministers such as T. Bos and J. Kok. These Five Thesis dealt with the binding to the confession, eternal justification, immediate and dormant regeneration, presumed regeneration at baptism, and supralapsarianism.

What did they say about covenant and baptism? Well, in their fourth thesis they emphatically declared that Holy Baptism signified and seals not what is present or presumed to be present in the person to be baptized but the promises of the Covenant of grace, revealed in the Gospel. Baptism is administered not on the basis of presumed regeneration but on the basis of the Lord's command. [10]

What happened at the Synod of Utrecht (1905)? A committee stated that it was neither necessary nor desirable for a General Synod to make a definitive pronouncement concerning the points in dispute, since they did not concern any essential point of our confession or any fundamental doctrine of the church. They simply were divergences of opinion, different approaches, representation, or formulations. Indeed, there have been harsh expressions, unfamiliar terminology and exaggeration in certain doctrinal representations and a warning should be issued against confusing speculations.

In agreement with this report, Synod 1905 accepted a Pacification Formula of which Herman Bavinck was the spiritual father. It basically placed the two different approaches of former Secession theologians and former Doleantie theologians beside one another. it was a compromise, but 1905 brought peace. It saved and consolidated the Union of 1892.

Utrecht -1905 taught us that it must be possible to accept divergences of theological opinions and approaches within the framework of firm commitment of the Three Forms of Unity. It is an element in the confessional history of the Canadian Reformed Churches. In the struggle to come to a clearer understanding of the depths of God's revelation in 1905, we must value the liberties prophetandi, the freedom to prophecy.

Alas, the synodical peace of 1905 was broken in 1942. We arrive at our fourth station, the Liberation of 1944.

IV. liberation (1944) [11]

In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, Synod Sneek-Utrecht of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands pronounced doctrinal statements about five topics that had been hotly debated during the thirties. They dealt with common grace, the covenant of grace and self-examination, immortality of the soul, and the union of the two natures in Christ.

Most important was the pronouncement on the covenant of grace. Synod reiterated a part of the declaration of Utrecht 1905 and stated that the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ until, upon their growing up, the opposite should become apparent from their conduct or doctrine.[12] This statement was only part of the Pacification Formula of 1905. It was, so to speak, only the Kuyperian part. Synod 1942 left out that it is less accurate to say that baptism is administered to infants on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is the mandate and the promise of God. It also left out that in the preaching we should be admonished seriously to examine ourselves, since only those who believe and are baptized, will be saved. It left out that it cannot be proved from Scripture or confession that every elect child is really regenerated before baptism, since in his sovereign pleasure God fulfills his promise at his time, be it before or during or after baptism. In other words, 1942 left out the doctrinal concerns and emphasis of the Secession.

Moreover, Synod 1942 accompanied its pronouncements with an explanatory statement that was called Toelichting (Elucidation) and worst of all, Synod attached to its doctrinal pronouncements a strict binding.[13] Classes had to examine candidates for the ministry on these doctrinal points and to assure themselves that the candidates agreed with Synod's pronouncements. In this way Synod placed its doctrinal statements on the same level as the Three Forms of Unity. In reality they became a fourth Form of Unity and they were binding for all office-bearers who had signed the Form of Subscription.

The following Synod, the Synod of Utrecht 1943-1945, not only rejected all objections against the contents of and the binding to the doctrinal statements of 1942, but issued another explanatory statement. it was called Praeadvies (Preadvice). It made the drift of the Synod's doctrine, especially with respect to God's covenant and baptism, abundantly clear. [14]

In November 1943, six concerned ministers - among whom was my catechism teacher, the Rev. M.B. van 't Veer - sent to Synod a Verklaring van gevoelen (a Position Statement) in which they positively declared their views and stated what they thought of God's covenant and baptism.[15]

Doctrinal Differences

In order to see now the doctrinal differences that played a role in the Liberation of 1944, let us deal with the following topics:

1.) Covenant and election

2.) Covenant and holiness

3.) Covenant and promise

4.) Covenant and baptism

5.) Covenant and responsibility

1. Covenant and election

God's covenant is the wonderful relationship He established between Himself and his people. It is the reality in which God speaks to us and we may respond to Him.

The question, however, was and still is: How do you define and describe God's covenant? There are here two different approaches. I call the one approach that of an election covenant and the other that of a promise covenant.

There is no Reformed person who will not speak of God's sovereign election before the foundation of the world. And there is no Reformed person who will not speak of the covenant in which God gives his promise of salvation.

But one of the main questions is the relation between God's election and God's covenant. Is God's election distinct from God's covenant or are the two to be identified? Are election and covenant identical and has the doctrine about God's covenant at least to be dominated by the doctrine of God's election? Or is there a difference between God's eternal decree of election and his covenant in the history of this world?

Or to put the question a little bit differently: Who are the parties in God's covenant? With whom did God establish his covenant? With the elector, with Christ as the head of the elect? That would be what I called an election covenant. Or did God establish his covenant with Abraham and his descendants and therefore with the believers and their children? This is what I called the covenant of God's promise. You will understand that in these questions we touch the tremendous realities of eternity and time, of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.

With respect to the order of God's eternal decrees - his decrees of creation, fall and predestination - there had always been the difference between infra- and supralapsarians. The most important theologians of the Secession of 1834 - men like Helenius de Cock, Lucas Lindeboom, T. Bos in the Netherlands and men like Beuker, Hulst and Ten Hoor in America - had been infralapsarians. Abraham Kuyper and his followers in the Netherlands and men as Van Lonkhuyzen and Herman Hoeksema in America were supralapsarians. Supralapsarians let the doctrine of God's covenant be dominated by the doctrine of his election. The essential covenant or the internal covenant is established only with the elect or with Christ as the Head of the elect. Only the elect are both in the covenant and of the covenant.

Infralapsarians, however, regard God's election as one of the hidden things and God's covenant as one of the revealed things. And does Moses not warn us, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever. . ." (Deut 29:29)? Thecovenant is not a secret thing at the election but a revealed thing for us and our children. God therefore established his covenant with the believers and their children, all their children. He established it with Esau as well as with Jacob.

The doctrinal pronouncement of Synod 1942 stated that the Lord, in the promise of the covenant, no doubt promises that He is the God not only of the believers but also of their seed (Gen 17:7); but that He no less reveals to us in his Word that they are not all Israel who are of Israel (Rom 9:6). This doctrinal statement placed the doctrine of God's covenant under the domination of the eternal election.


"All covenant children are holy ... set apart and dedicated to God"


Two texts are here brought into contrast with one another. Synod says: Indeed, there is Genesis 17:7 but there is also Romans 9:6. And Romans 9 speaks of eternal election and reprobation of individuals like Jacob and Esau. The doctrine of predestination from Romans 9 becomes a wedge in the doctrine of God's covenant of Genesis 17. In its Elucidation Synod acknowledged that the offer of the gospel is to be presented to all those who have been baptized. But Synod immediately declared that this does not give us the right "to identify this special position of all those who are baptized with the covenant and to let the covenant consist of this ."[16]So the position of all those who are baptized may be called special but it is not the covenant position. The covenant is more and this more is not for all those who are baptized but only for the elect. Or to quote another phrase, the position of all who are baptized is only a position of those "who outwardly have received a place in the covenant and in God's congregation .[17]

The Pre-advice explains the Synod's decisions as saying "that being a covenant-partner or being a real covenant partner is not the privilege of all those who outwardly belong to the covenant.... Covenant-partners are those who are saved . . . ." [18] "God's election or disposition reaches as far as the covenant and is therefore to be taken either in a broader or in a narrower sense.[19]

It is clear: Synod basically identified election and covenant. What did the six concerned ministers declare in their Position Statement? Well, after having confessed that all children are conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation itself, they stated that God in Christ has established his covenant of grace with the believers and their seed (Gen 17:7; Gal 3:14 and 29) and that therefore all the children of believers are children of the covenant (Acts 3:25). We are not amiss when we place the emphasis here on the word "all." "All the children of the believers" means here: not only the elected children, but Esau as well as Jacob. In Acts 3 the apostle Peter says to the Jews in Jerusalem who had crucified the lord Jesus: You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers. Peter calls them sons of the covenant, covenant children, and they were.

It is clear: the concerned brothers did not want to know of an identification of election and covenant. They did not want to speak of a twofold covenant either: an external covenant and an internal one. God established the one relationship of his covenant of grace in history. And He did so with Abraham and all his descendants, when He said: And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.

2. Covenant and holiness

The doctrinal statement of Synod 1942 read that, therefore - according to what the Synod of Utrecht 1905 declared - "the seed of the covenant must be taken for regenerated and sanctified in Christ in virtue of the promise of God until the opposite shows when they have grown up; even though the Synod (1905) correctly added that this "does not mean at all that therefore every child truly has been regenerated."

This pronouncement calls for consideration of several points of doctrine, namely covenant and holiness, covenant and promise, and covenant and baptism.

Let us begin with the expression that 'the seed of the covenant must be taken for regenerated and sanctified in Christ." The Dutch original has the famous expression "houden voor wedergeboren en in Christus Geheiligd." "Houden voor" can be translated as "to hold for", "to take for", "to regard as" or "to presume or assume to be." Kuyper had spoken of "veronderstelde wedergeboorte", that is, "presumed (or assumed) regeneration."

Synod 1942 meant the expression in this sense. For we have to read it in context. The previous statement said: Indeed, there is Genesis 17 but there is also Romans 9. There is the eternal election of individuals. This is a secret or hidden reality. And therefore- note this word "therefore" - the seed of the covenant is to be held for regenerated. It can not be known to be born again but at least it is presumed to be so.

Another element is that covenant children are to be held for "regenerated and sanctified in Christ." What does "sanctified in Christ" mean? There is a combination and order of words in Synod's expression "regenerated and sanctified in Christ." It leads to the idea that according to Synod "sanctified in Christ" is the same as "regenerated." The issue is important because the words are well-known from the first question at baptism: Do you confess that our children ... are sanctified in Christ and thus as members of his church ought to be baptized? So the expression "regenerated and sanctified in Christ" in the doctrinal pronouncements provoked controversies about covenant and baptism and about the meaning of the sacraments in general.

The Pre-advice stated that the first question at baptism only speaks about the children that are elect. Literally it says, "The first Baptismal question has neglected the exceptions - those who are not elect." [20] But one may ask: How can parents then confess that our children are sanctified in Christ and how do they know that this their child does not belong to the exceptions that according to Synod the baptismal question has neglected? And are these socalled exceptions, according to Scripture and our experience, not numerous? What did the six concerned ministers in their Position Statement say about this point? Well, after they had declared that all the children of believers are covenant children and had referred to Acts 3:25, they continued by saying "that all those children are holy (I Cor 7:14) or sanctified in Christ (I Cor 1:2, Form of Baptism)"

Again, the emphasis is on "all." All covenant children are holy. In I Cor 7:14 the apostle Paul writes about the marriage of a Christian woman who has a husband who is an unbeliever. She should not divorce him. "For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy."

We may ask: What do the words "consecrated" and "holy" in this text mean? The answer is: "Consecrated" means "sanctified" and "holy" means set apart and dedicated to God."

But Synod took "sanctified in Christ" as identical to "regenerated." The apostle Paul, however, does not say that the children in such a mixed household are regenerated. He assures us that also this marriage relationship and the children therein are set apart from the godless world and dedicated to God. I do not think that we should use here the term "objective holiness" but rather "covenantal holiness." Those children are within the covenant and characterized by covenantal holiness. It does not say anything about their real regeneration or their presumed regeneration. Eternal election and real regeneration are not implied in the word "holy" or in the expression "sanctified in Christ."

At the baptismal font parents should not presume that their child is regenerated. The question is not: Do you assume that your child is sanctified in Christ? We assume an unknown thing. But the question reads: Do you confess that our children - and we may add: therefore also your child - are sanctified in Christ and thus as members of his church ought to be baptized? If we assumed, then it was an unknown thing but we confess on the basis of God's revelation. The hidden things are for the Lord our God, but the revealed things are for us and our children. God reveals that all children of believers are covenant children and therefore sanctified in Christ and members of his church.

So, while in the synodical construction "sanctified in Christ" meant the same as regenerated, the concerned ministers took the expression "holy and sanctified" as meaning "distinct" from the world and included in God's covenant and church." "Sanctified in Christ" indicates covenant holiness.

3. Covenant and promise

The following topic, implied in the doctrinal pronouncement of 1942, is that of covenant and promise. For the statement read that "the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ until, upon their growing up, the opposite should become apparent."

The question here is: What is the character and the content of God's promise? Those who let the doctrine of the covenant be dominated by the doctrine of election make a distinction not only between an external and internal covenant but also between a conditional and an unconditional promise. There are not only two covenants but also two promises. The conditional promise is an offer of salvation and the unconditional promise is a prediction of salvation. In the Synodical construction, the unconditional promise is the real promise and therefore the character of the promise is that of an unconditional prediction of eternal salvation. Where do we find this construction? Well, Synod 1942 stated in its Elucidation that we must discern between the offer of salvation which comes to all who hear the Gospel (and with special strength to those who are baptized), and the unconditional promise of salvation to the elect, which forms the special content of covenant and sacrament. [21]

So there is on the one hand the offer of salvation to all. This offer of salvation is conditional: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. But there is on the other hand the unconditional promise of salvation to the elect. This unconditional promise to the elect is called the special content of covenant and sacrament. If we try to verbalize this unconditional promise to the elect it must read like a prediction or prophecy: This person is saved for all eternity.

It was precisely this scholastic distinction between a conditional offer and an unconditional promise that confused Reformed people. What did God say to me in my baptism? Did He pronounce his unconditional promise over me? If I belong to the elect, I received the special content of covenant and baptism. But how do I know that I belong to the elect? In the synodical construction everything became uncertain.

What a shame! God's covenant and God's promise assure us precisely of his faithfulness and call for our response in faith. God's baptism signifies and seals to us the dependable promise of his covenant and is instituted for the strengthening of our faith. What God in full trustworthiness had instituted for the sake of our weakness was made into a matter of uncertainty.

In their Position Statement, the concerned ministers declared that since all the children of believers are covenant children and sanctified in Christ, "therefore the covenant promise of salvation is for all those children (Acts 2:39)." Here is no distinction between elect children and reprobate children. Here is again spoken of all the children of believers. And here is not spoken of a conditional offer and an unconditional promise, but here is simply and clearly spoken about the promise of salvation. It is the one and only promise of God. The Scripture reference in the Position Statement is clear. On Pentecost Peter proclaimed: For the promise is to you and to your children ... (Acts 2:39).

Indeed, it is no prediction or prophecy. It is a promise, but God's promise is a tremendous reality. When God promised to Israel the land of Canaan, in this promise God gave the land. Israel had only to enter by faith.

God's promise always comes with the command to believe. When God gives the promise "I am your God and the God of your children", it implies the obligation that we should love and serve Him. God said to Abram: "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless (Gen 17:11). Our form of Baptism rightly says: in all covenants there are two parts, a promise and an obligation. And in the Canons of Dordt we confess:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe (Chapter 11, Article 5).

The promise of the gospel is to be proclaimed without discrimination, together with the command to believe. And this promise of the gospel is addressed to us personally within God's covenant and the promise of the covenant is signed and sealed to us personally in holy baptism and comes to us together with the command to repent and believe.

4. Covenant and baptism

We now come to the fourth topic in our discussion of the doctrinal aspects of the Liberation. It is the topic of covenant and baptism. Although baptism was not specifically mentioned in the doctrinal pronouncements, the words about the promise of the covenant and the expression "regenerated and sanctified in Christ" immediately make us think of baptism as sign and seal of God's covenant and promise. We saw already that the Elucidation immediately following the doctrinal pronouncements in 1942 stated that the unconditional promise of salvation to the elect forms the special content of covenant and sacrament. [22] One may not identify the covenant with the position of all those who are baptized. There are those who only "receive the outward signs."

In the Pre-advice it was stated that the sacraments assume faith, and that God speaks in them to his elect and believers. When Answer 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to infants no less than to adults, the Pre-advice takes this promise as "an assurance of a grace that is presumed to be present at baptism." [23] In this way baptism became a sign and seal of internal grace that is presumed to be present in the heart of the child. Baptism became a sign and seal of presumed regeneration, precisely in the way Abraham Kuyper had taught it. However, now it was not simply a personal opinion that could be tolerated, but presumed regeneration as the special content and the ground of baptism became binding doctrine of the church.

We already saw that according to the Preadvice the first baptismal question neglects those who are not elect. But it was remarkable and devastating that this synodical document continued by saying: "From this it can be derived that it (our Form of Baptism, J.F.) does not consider their baptism as a baptism in the full sense of the word ." [24] The baptism of non-elect children of believers is, therefore, according to Synod no baptism in the full sense of the word.

While we first saw that Synod by taking its starting point in God's eternal election drew a wedge within God's one covenant (there is according to Synod a twofold covenant) and continued by drawing a wedge within God's one promise (there is according to Synod a twofold promise, namely a conditional offer and an unconditional promise), it ends by speaking about a twofold baptism, a baptism in the full sense for the elect children and a baptism in a less full sense for the nonelect.

There is the subjective condition of the children: they are elect or reprobate. There is also the subjective reaction: the children become believers or remain unbelievers. Now reasoning from the subjective condition or subjective reaction of the individuals involved, synod undermined and broke asunder the normative validity of God's institutions.

God's covenant, God's promise and God's baptism are institutions of God and as such they have an unbreakable integrity. Synod did not see that there is a difference between receiving the sacraments and using the sacraments.

Not all those who receive the sacraments use them in faith. But when they do not use the sacrament in faith - for example, their baptism -, I may not conclude that they never received it or at least that they did not receive a baptism in the full sense of the word.

A final result was the Synodical statement in the case of candidate H.J. Schilder. When candidate Schilder, who was called by a congregation, at his classical examination refused to subscribe to the doctrinal pronouncements of 1942, synodical deputies stated "that the sacraments - if they are true sacraments - seal the faith that is present." They seal not possible faith but present faith. Synod added in the report: Not to accept that sacraments seal faith which is present brings one "in conflict with Art. 33 of the Belgic confession." [25]

Now again, what did the six concerned ministers declare in their Position Statement? Well, they emphatically said "that for all those children the administration of baptism is a signing and sealing to them of the covenant of grace or this promise of salvation (Gen 17:11,13-14; Form of Baptism)."

Baptism is a sign and seal of God's covenant and God's promise. It is such a sign and seal for all the children of believers. Esau was circumcised as well as Jacob but he despised his birth right (Heb 12:16,17). And the apostle Paul writes that after God's redemptive action in the exodus of our fathers from Egypt all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.... Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness" (I Cor 10:2,3,5). Let us not fall prey to subjectivism! Instead, let us always honour God's normative and trustworthy promise of the covenant and the integrity and validity of his sacraments.

The Position Statement of the concerned ministers and the stand taken by candidate H.J. Schilder strongly stressed this integrity of God's sacraments and the validity of the one baptism of all children of believers.

5. Covenant and responsibility

In my last point - covenant and responsibility - I simply want to show some of the practical implications of the different positions. If one lets the doctrine of election dominate the doctrine of God's covenant, then the real or proper covenant is only established with the elect. One can then not speak about breakers of God's covenant and one cannot then fully proclaim the threat of eternal damnation for children of the covenant.

If the unconditional promise of eternal salvation is only for the elect, one cannot proclaim that the good news has to meet with faith in the hearers and that the Israelites were unable to enter the promised land because of unbelief and warn for an evil ear of unbelief (Heb 3:12,1 9ff.).

Over against this practical deadly weakness of the synodical construction, the Position Statement ends with the following weighty warnings and they speak again about all the children of believers.

7.) that therefore all these children are called very seriously to accept this promise of salvation by true faith (Heb 4:1);

8.) that so many of them as accept this promise by true faith do so through the regenerating working of grace by the Holy Spirit, according to God's eternal election (Jer 24:7 and Ezek 11:19; 36:26,27);

9.) that children who do not accept this promise with uprightness of heart for this reason will be punished as breakers of the covenant with a more severe punishment (Lev 26:15; cf. also Deut 31:20; Rom 11 :28-30; Heb 12:25, cf. also 10:28-31);

10.) that always should be kept in mind the admonition: take heed lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God (Heb 3:1,12).

When Synod Utrecht 1943 maintained its binding doctrinal pronouncements and applied unlawful disciplinary actions of suspension and deposition of professors, ministers, and elders, the Liberation had to follow. On the eleventh of August 1944, Dr. Klaas Schilder read to concerned Reformed confessors the Act of Liberation or Return; it was deliberately phrased after the Act of Secession a century ago.


In the post World War II period of 1948 - 1952 a surprisingly large 41 percent of Dutch Canadian emigrants were Gereformeerd, while at that time only 19 percent of the Dutch populace belonged to the synodical and liberated Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. They came especially from agrarian provinces as Groningen and Overijssel .[26] Where could the liberated Reformed people find a place to worship? They did not want to be sectarian and to go into isolation.

The Christian Reformed Church of North America had already chosen the side of the synodical churches and disowned the liberated churches as a new denomination. The Protestant Reformed church accepted a binding doctrinal statement concerning the covenant of grace that was similar to the Dutch synodical pronouncements. The liberated immigrants, therefore, were compelled to establish the Canadian Reformed and American Reformed churches which came together in a first General Synod in Homewood-Carman in 1954.[27]

They did not forget their Christian Reformed brothers and sisters and addressed them in official appeals in 1963 and 1977. They urged them not to follow the path chosen by the synodical Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and to break off this ecclesiastical contact.[28] They followed with great sympathy the reformational movement that led to the establishing of Orthodox Reformed and United Reformed Churches. In the present Synod of Fergus they will deal with proposals to strengthen the contact with a view to ecclesiastical union as expression of our unity in the true faith.

Brothers and sisters, we are not yet at the last station. let us implore the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and by that grace, love and fellowship let us travel together as one company to the final destination of the catholic church: New Jerusalem.



[1]ReturnSee further my essay "The Significance of the Secession of 1834 in the Light of Our Confession of the Holy Catholic Church" in Secession and Liberation for Today, (London: ILPB, 1984).

[2]Return Helenius d e Cock, Hendrik de Cock, Eerste Afgescheiden Predikant in Nederland, Beschouwd in leven en werkzaamheid, (Kampen: S. van Velzen Jr., 1860), p. 59: "Laster (was het) evenzeer dat hij de verkiezing als voorwaarde bij de Evangelieprediking stelde."

[3]Return Compleete uitgave van de officiele stukken betreffende den uitgang uit het Nederl. Herv. Kerkgenootschap van de leeraren H.P. Scholte, A. Brummelkamp, S. van VeIzen, G.F. Gezelle Meerburg en dr. A.C. van Raalte, 2nd ed., (Kampen: Zalsman, 1884), p. 292. See also W. van 't Spijker, De kerk bij Hendrik de Cock (Kampen; Kok, 1985), pp. 24f.

[4]Return See further my speech "What Should Be Done?" in C. Van Dam, ed., The Challenge of Church Union: speeches and discussions on Reformed identity and ecumenicity, (Winnipeg: Premier, 1993), pp. 144-200, esp. 187-189 on the alleged exclusivism of Secession and Liberation.

[5]Return See my Kampen Schoolday address 'Schriftkritiek en opleiding" in De Reformatie 42 (1966), 5-7.

[6]Return L. Praamsma, Let Christ be King, Reflections on the Life and Times of Abraham Kuyper (Jordan Station: Paideia, 1985).

[7]Return See the report of speeches by J. De Jong and C. Pronk and discussions on the Union of 1892 in C. Van Dam, ed., The Challenge of Church Union (Winnipeg: Premier, 1993) pp. 171.

[8]Return A. Kuyper, Tractaat van de reformatie der kerken (Amsterdam: Hoveker, 1884); idem, Separatie en Doleantie (Amsterdam: Hov eker, 1890). Important from the side of the Secession theologians are the publications by F.M. ten Hoor, Alscheiding en Doleantie in verband met het kerkbegrip (Leiden: Donner, 1890); idem, Alfcheiding of Doleantie, Een woord ter verdediging en nadere toelichting (Leiden: Donner, 1891).

[9]Return See H. Zwaanstra, "Abraham Kuyper's Conception of the Church" in Calvin Theological Journal 9 (1974), 149-181.

[10]Return Vijf stellingen betreffende leeringen, waarover in de Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland in de laatste jaren verschil gevallen is (Kampen: Kok, 1905), p. 17.

[11]Return This part is an abbreviation of my essay "The Liberation: the Doctrinal Aspect" in C. Van Dam, ed., The Liberation: Causes and Consequences (Winnipeg: Premier, 1995), pp. 1-29.

[12]Return Acta van de voortgezette Generate Synode van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland gehouden te Sneek en te Utrecht, 1940 - 1943, Art. 82. It can also be found in C. Janssen,, De feitelijke toedracht (3 rd ed.; Groningen: De lager, 1955), pp. 268-269. For an English translation see Van Dam, ed., The Liberation, Appendix I.

[13]Return See Acta, 1940-1943, Bijdrage CVII. For the text of the Toelichting, see G. Ch. Aalders, G.C. Berkouwer, S.J. Popma, I. Ridderbos, Toelichting op de uitspraken van de Generate Synode van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland inzake eenige punten der leer, in opdracht d er synode opgesteld (Kampen: Kok, n.d.).

[14]Return For the text see Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake de bezwaarschriften tegen een zinsnede uit de verklaring van Utrecht 1905 of (c.g. en) tegen de uitspraken van Sneek - Utrecht 1942 en tegen de daarop verschenen toelichting (Groningen: Niemeijer, 1943).

[15]Return For the Dutch text see Janssen, De feitelijke toedracht, 270 . For an English translation Van Dam, ed., Liberation, Appendix II.

[16]Return Aalders et al., Toelichting, p. 16.

[17]Return Aalders et al., Toelichting, p. 17, Emphasis is mine.

[18]Return Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake d e bezwaarschriften, p . 44.

[19]Return Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake d e bezwaarschriften, p . 45.

[20]Return Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake d e bezwaarschriften, p . 24.

[21]Return Aalders et aL, Toelichting, p. 21.

[22]Return Aalders eet aL, Toelichting, p. 21.

[23]Return Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake de bezwaarschriften, p. 12.

[24]Return Praeadvies van Commissie 1 inzake de bezwaarschriften, p. 24.

[25]Return See C. Veenhof, In den chaos, Een woord over de huidige crisis in de Gereformeerde Kerken, (Utrecht: Wristers, 1945), p. 47; H. J. Schilder, Op de grens van kerk en secte, (Rotterdam: Stichting De Vrije Kerk, 1948).

[26]Return R.P. Swierenga, -Pioneers for Jesus Christ': Dutch Protestant Colonization in North America as an Act of Faith" in G. Harinck and K. Krabbendam, eds., Sharing the Reformed Tradition: The Dutch-North American Exchange, 1846-1996, (Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij, 1996), pp. 39-40.

[27]Return See W.W.J. Van Oene, The Canadian Reformed Churches in Historical Perspective, (Winnipeg: Premier, 1975) and J. De Haas, And Replenish the Earth (New Westminster: Covenant Publishing, 1987).

[28]Return See Th. Plantinga, ed., Seeking Our Brothers in the Light: A Plea for Reformed Ecumenicity, (Neerlandia: Inheritance, 1992), pp. 73-93 (The Appeal of 1963), pp. 95-121 (The Appeal of 1977).