THE COVENANT: a Canadian Reformed Perspective
BY N. H. GOOTJES
Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ontario
Churches cannot avoid being partly determined by their history. That applies to the Canadian Reformed Churches, too. These churches have their origin in a doctrinal conflict in the Netherlands, in which the covenant played an important role. This controversy was played out, of all times, in the middle of the Second World War. Synod 1942 had to deal with a report on the covenant presented by a synodical committee. This report dealt with the relationship between covenant and election. In its decision, it recognized first of all that in the covenant, God not only made promises to the believers but also to their children (Gen. 17:7). We could call that the covenant line. But the decision continued by stating that God also reveals that not all who are of Israel, are Israel (Rom. 9:6). That could be called the election line. Both statements are scriptural, and both the covenant and the election were maintained.
The situation became problematic when the second statement was allowed to dominate the first. That happened in a further explanation added to this decision.
Here, the covenant was suddenly qualified by the word 'outward': There are people who only outwardly belong to the covenant, but they are not really included in the covenant. The real participants in the covenant are the elect.
This further explanation caused a number of ministers and professors in theology to raise objections. This led to a great debate in the churches, even during the war. The covenant was obviously not seen as a minor issue, it was discussed as an important doctrine. Synod thought the covenant was so important that it had to clarify a point of doctrine, here. The opponents also thought this issue of sufficient important to resist the further explanation, and to present an appeal to the next general synod.
Things got out of hand when these 1942 decisions on the covenant were used as the doctrinal standard for the teaching in the church. That happened in 1943 and 1944, still during the war. In 1943, a candidate for the ministry was not admitted by classis because he did not want to state that he would teach and preach in agreement with the decision of Synod. He did not believe that baptized children who turn away from God when they grew up, never had belonged to the covenant. In his opinion, such people were breakers of the covenant, who for that reason would not receive its benefits. The refusal to admit this candidate was only the beginning of the measures to implement the decision on the covenant. In the following years, several professors and many ministers, elders and deacons were censured and deposed if they did not want to state agreement with the decision of Synod.
This history was the reason that the covenant became a crucial issue in the Canadian Reformed churches. We had to study and defend it. As a result, we often refer to it. We speak of our children as covenant children, and the teaching in the schools emphasize the covenantal responsibility of the parents and of the children. Parents have to train their children in the ways of the Lord, because they are covenant children of the Lord.
This does not mean that we as Canadian Reformed Churches have adopted our own statements on the covenant. We simply maintained our confessions, which speak about the covenant. A brief survey will show this.
The Belgic Confession speaks only once about the covenant, in the article on baptism. In the context of the defence of infant baptism against the Anabaptists, the confession remarks that the little children of believers ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant (Art. 35). These children belong to the covenant, and they are by baptism assured that the great gifts of the forgiveness of sins and of the renewal are promised to them, as well. The covenant is the cornerstone in the Reformed defence of infant baptism.
The Heidelberg Catechism, too, mentions the covenant in connection with infant baptism. Actually, the word 'covenant' is used four times in its explanation of infant baptism: infants of believers belong to God's covenant; baptism is a sign of God's covenant; circumcision was that sign in the old covenant; and baptism is that sign in the new covenant (Lord's Day 27, 74). The Catechism goes beyond the Belgic Confession when it also mentions the covenant in the explanation of the Lord's Supper. In connection with the cup, the catechism refers to the new covenant in Christ's blood, referring to 1 Cor. 11:25. Actually, the Catechism had already taken baptism and Lord's Supper together as sacraments in the new covenant (Lord's Day 25, 68). The confession and the catechism are limited in their use of the covenant. They only mention it in connection with the sacraments.
The Canons of Dort go one step further. It speaks of the covenant in connection with infants of believers who die in infancy. It says that these children are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they are included with their parents. Believing parents can put their trust in God that he. will treat them as his children when they die before they are able to hear and respond to the call of the gospel. This is a comforting and heartwarming statement made by theologians who are sometimes accused of teaching a harsh doctrine of election.
Teaching election does not mean denying the reality and comfort of the covenant.
Beyond these statements, the Reformed churches do not bind to a specific doctrine of the covenant. The Canadian Reformed churches have a limited doctrine of the covenant.
In the reality of every day life, the covenant is used widely as the summary term for the relationship between God and his people. The covenant is not limited to receiving baptism or the Lord's Supper. These sacraments indicate that we have a covenantal relationship with God. We are his covenant people. Our covenant view is, in fact, based on Genesis 17, the covenant God made with Abram.
This can be used in two directions, for encouragement and for admonition. The comforting aspect is that God's people may know that they live under the daily care of God. In an evil and cursed world, they live in the certainty that God is there who protects them and guides them through life and all its ups and downs. When God established his covenant with Abram, he stated that he would be the God of Abram and his descendants (Gen. 17:7). This meant first of all that God would take care of Abram and his small clan in the foreign land of Canaan. They would be able to live there as foreigners. And later, at God's own time, they would even own the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8). The covenant is God's way of assuring us that he will certainly fulfill all his promises to us, as he had done to Abram. The covenant is a great comfort for a small people of God in a sinful and often hostile world.
The other side of the covenantal relationship is that we should learn to live a life of gratitude. When God came to Abram with the covenant, he told him to walk before him and be blameless (Ge. 17:1). The life of God's people should make clear that they belong to God. If they break the covenant, in doctrine or life, and show that they do not want to live with God, they should be admonished and censured if there is no repentance and return.
The covenant is the gracious relationship which God establishes with the believers and their children. It determines the way they live, for they should show that they belong to this gracious God.
N. H. GOOTJES