The Covenant Of Grace Its Scriptural Origins and Development in Continental Reformed Theology - Rev. C. A. Schouls

Back One Page


Covenant of Today, Rooted in Scripture Index

When we now move on to consider the development of covenantal theology, we should take our starting point in Scripture. Earlier we referred to the fact that the Covenant mentioned in the New Testament is the same as the Covenant established with Abraham. It will be good briefly to re-examine this. We will come back to this again, in more detail, when we deal with the matter of the sign of the covenant, baptism. If we cannot see that what we, today, call the Covenant of Grace is the same as what God established with Abraham, we cannot very well lay claim to membership in that covenant, either. We must establish then that: a) the covenant made with Abraham is carried over into the New Testament; b) this covenant is in effect today.

The covenant made with Abraham was, essentially, a spiritual covenant. We sometimes lose sight of this because the spiritual dimension of the covenant was often obscured in Israel and because the membership in the covenant was equivalent to citizenship in the nation. The spirituality is quickly and easily demonstrated by referring to Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4- "Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts". Clearly, the outward sign of the covenant pointed to an inward, spiritual reality. This is further made clear in the New Testament, Romans 2:28,29: "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit..." In addition, Paul's other references to Abraham and the righteousness which is of faith (Romans 4; Galatians 3) confirm the idea that the covenant made with Abraham was spiritual in its essence. The reference in Romans 2, just mentioned, indicates already that this covenant is still in force in NT times. The apostle writes in the present tense; the obvious sense of the passage is a current meaning and application. In Hebrews 6:13-18, this is stated very strongly. Here it is quite clearly said that the promises given to Abraham, that is, the covenant, are still valid for the heirs of the promise. If we then also note Peter's words in Acts 2:39, "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" and if we consider that the New Testament teaches that we live in that last days or times which began with Christ's ascension, we may conclude that we live in that same time frame in which the covenant made with Abraham is still in force.

Early References to the Covenant Index

The earliest reference to covenant theology that we could locate is in the writings of the Church Father Irenaeus (115 - 202). He was a student of Polycarp who, in turn, had been taught by John. This places our source very close to the beginning of the N. T. era. He makes mention of four covenants: under Adam, under Noah, under Moses, and "...the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom." (34) Striking that he does not, in this place, mention the Covenant of Grace, as such, made with Abraham.

Augustine (354-430)was perhaps the greatest of all the Church Fathers. His primary importance is in the opposition he provided to Pelagius in the area of the doctrine of sin and grace. Augustine strongly defended the notion of original sin and the need for sovereign grace given to the elect. He also spoke of the covenant but he made mention especially of the Sinaitic covenant. It seems that he did not develop a separate concept of the Covenant of Grace; rather, he distinguished between the old and the new covenant. The Sinaitic covenant, which included the law written on stone tablets and promises which were but earthly and temporal, was seen as the prefiguration of eternal, heavenly good, promised in the new covenant. This new covenant has been established by God already with Abraham, who receives promises relating to his seed, which is Christ, according to Galatians 3:16. All the righteous, both before and after Abraham and Moses, belong to this covenant. In the time of the Old Testament it remained hidden, cloaked in the writings of the prophets, until such time that it is fully revealed in Christ. (35)

Although Augustine may not have contributed directly to the development of covenant theology, his view on the unity of Scripture is of the utmost importance for this. From him we have the saying "the New is in the Old contained; the Old is in the New explained". Without this view on the unity of Scripture, one could never come to the position that the covenant made with Abraham is still in effect today.

The Reformers Index

Although the views of Augustine largely prevailed, albeit in dangerously modified form at the Synod of Orange (529), little was done with the idea of the covenant. The next 1,000 years were not a good time for the Church. As the popes extended their power and influence over Europe, the area of vital godliness shrunk drastically. When there is little or no godliness, there can be little or no theological development. Although there were exceptions, both of individuals and of groups, generally the church went into a long period of decline and doctrinal indifference. It is not until we enter the 16th century that covenant theology comes to the fore again. Here we must mention the names of some of the foremost reformers. (36)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) This first and, in some ways, greatest of the Reformers, did not play a pivotal role in the development of covenant theology. After 1520 the covenant concept seems to play no role in his thinking. Prior to this, as early as 1513 and especially from 1518 to 1520, it receives regular attention. Luther did do some work with the covenant notion as it comes to the fore in the Lord's Supper: the reference is to the cup of "the new testament". He develops the idea of one of the early Church Fathers (Chrysostomus) that in the Lord's Supper we deal with promise and mandate.

As far as our interest is concerned, Luther connects baptism and covenant. In baptism he sees that, on the one hand, God commits himself to us in a gracious covenant, full of comfort and, on the other hand, we commit ourself to the mortification of sin and a sure faith in God's relationship with us. However, in his 1520 pamphlet "The Babylonian Captivity" (dealing with the corruption of the church of Rome) the covenant is not mentioned and one looks in vain for it in subsequent writings. The reason for this is to be sought in Luther's view on baptism which is focussed in the idea of promise. That promise is, "He who believes and is baptised shall be saved" (Mark 16:16) This individual response received stress in Luther's views. It is no wonder that the covenant idea receded into the background. The decidedly semi-Pelagian twist which Melanchthon gave to subsequent Lutheran theology might have been prevented had Luther himself had the opportunity to develop a proper covenant structure. Considering his time and place in history, we stand amazed at what he was able to accomplish, by the grace of God. Noting his deficiency in this area is certainly not a knock on Luther.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) The Swiss Reformer dealt with the covenant concept in the development of his views on the Lord's Supper. He pointed out that "covenant" and "testament" really mean the same thing and that the Scriptures seem to use "testament", "pact" and "covenant" (testamentum, pactum, foedus) interchangeably. Referring to the covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Israel, Zwingli demonstrates that it was the custom to seal such a pact with blood and sacrifices; the blood points to the blood of Christ. As early as 1523 Zwingli considers testament and covenant the same thing: it is the relationship into which God enters with man.

In 1524 Zwingli begins to defend his views on baptism against some of the radicals amongst his followers. These radicals, who wanted to break all bonds with the church and sacrament idea of Rome, and who felt that Zwingli was not being strong enough in his rejection of the Roman errors, formed the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. They rejected infant baptism. In opposing them, Zwingli compares circumcision and baptism, stating on the basis of Col.2:11 and Romans 4:11, that baptism has replaced circumcision. As his thoughts on this develop he comes to describe the covenant as the promise which God gives to the believers. The covenant is not primarily the obligation which man takes upon himself but the relationship into which God enters with man. There is an element of obligation but it is not the primary element. Already here we listen to the argument referred to in Lecture 2 when we dealt with the obligation aspect in "b'rith".

In July of 1527, Zwingli publishes his mature views on the matter of the covenant. He teaches that throughout all of time there has only been one covenant, made with Adam and successively established with Noah, Abraham, the nation of Israel and the NT church. The heart of the covenant is that the Most High is our God and that we are his people. The unity of the covenant rests in the fact that God is always one and that Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour.

It is interesting to note that Zwingli, in his commentary on Genesis, speaks of two kinds of children of Abraham and two kinds of promises: earthly and temporal promises for the natural children alongside of spiritual and eternal promises for the spiritual children during the old- as wells as the new testament time. He does not speak of a two-fold covenant but does recognize there is a certain duality. This thought runs through all the covenant discussions and the manner of dealing with the questions it raises has tremendous impact on how the covenant and its blessings is presented to and experienced by the congregation.

Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) was closely involved with Zwingli in the latter's development of his covenant views. This is evident from various letters and his participation in conferences with the Anabaptists held in 1525. Already in 1523 (age 19!) he wrote about the unity of the Scriptures, such a pivotal truth in understanding the covenant. In 1534 he refers to the Decalogue as a paraphrase of the divine and human obligations in the covenant. Various other of his writings indicate that he agreed closely with Zwingli on this issue.

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) spent most of his ministry in Strassburg, a city in northern France, on the German border, which was an important centre of Reformed activity. On various issues he took a mid position between Luther and Zwingli. He was influenced by Luther on the point of the New Testament in the Lord's Supper; however, when the Anabaptists brought their views into Strassburg, he turned to Zwingli for assistance. In a letter dated December 16, 1524, Zwingli advises him to defend infant baptism because it coincides with circumcision in the OT, which, even as baptism, is a sign of faith and yet was administered to the infants. Bucer took this advice and in a pamphlet dated December 26, 1524 he speaks of the equal meaning of circumcision and baptism. In his further development of covenantal thought, Bucer is in full accord with Zwingli. We mention Bucer to show that the leading reformers were in agreement and also because he, in turn, influenced John Calvin, who spent some years in Strassburg and was deeply impressed with Bucer's work.

John Calvin (1509-1564) is the reformer who developed a full blown covenant theology. Various attempts have been (and, no doubt, will be) made to place Calvin in this or that camp. Such is the breadth of his insight and the scope of his genius that he simply cannot be put into one or another category. Neither can it be said that any one particular doctrine forms the fundamental principle of his theological system. Calvin is a theologian of the Scriptures; where that means there are teachings which he cannot logically harmonize, he is content to leave them. As followers of Calvin, we can "...make a good case for saying that the recognition of unresolved logical tensions in theology is a distinctive mark of Calvinism. A theology faithful to Calvin must always be willing to grant that logic never has the last word" (37). If all those who claimed to follow Calvin had only observed this, we might have ended up with a less divided Reformed community than we now have.

When we look for Calvin's views on the Covenant of Grace we must not expect to find a section in his Institutes which deals with this subject exclusively. He never wrote a separate book on the subject. His views on the matter must be gleaned from various sources: the Institutes, his sermons and his commentaries.

When we consider subjects such as membership in the covenant and covenant and baptism, we will have occasion to refer to Calvin again. For now we will limit ourself to a brief summary of that part of his views which are of particular interest to us. Some of this will be re-examined in more detail later.

Calvin is very clear in stating that the covenant made with Abraham is the covenant made with us and our children today: "But if the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews." (38) Since this is the same covenant and since not all that is called Israel is Israel, Calvin can also take the position that the Covenant of Grace is broader in its scope than election. In writing of predestination as being God's eternal decree regarding the ultimate state of man, he points out:

"God has attested this not only in individual persons but has given us an example of it in the whole offspring of Abraham...We must now add a second, more limited degree of election...that is, when from the same race of Abraham God rejected some..." (39)

He is saying that all the offspring of Abraham were elect in a general sense. With them the Covenant of Grace was established. However, in a more particular sense, election pertains only to some of Abraham's children - some were rejected. Since all were in the Covenant of Grace and bore the mark of it in circumcision, we must conclude that Calvin teaches that the Covenant of Grace is broader than [particular] election. Indeed, Calvin makes no distinction between general election, i.e. the choosing of the entire nation of Israel as God's people, and the Covenant of Grace. When he writes, "The whole people of Israel has been called 'the inheritance of God,' ...yet many of them were foreigners." (40), he is using covenantal language. Those in the Covenant were elect in that general way in which God called all of Israel, as a nation, to be his people. He fully understands and teaches that members of the Covenant can be cut off through their covenant breaking. He refers to Ishmael and Esau as being examples of this.

Calvin also had no qualms about speaking of different degrees of grace. Hoeksema, who so strongly emphasises that grace can only be "grace" - i.e. saving, special and effective and that it, therefore can be given only to the elect, could not have been happy at this statement of Calvin's:

"So, indeed, God's generous favour, which he has denied to others, has been displayed in the adoption of the race of Abraham; yet in the members of Christ a far more excellent power of grace appears, (italics mine - CS) for, engrafted to their Head, they are never cut off from salvation." (41)

Although we will refer to Calvin again, these references are sufficient to prove that he taught that the covenant was broader than election; that it was made with Abraham and his natural seed. As was said earlier, Calvin, because of his breadth, has been used for many purposes. The hyper-Calvinist appeals to him; the Arminian appeals to him. Hoeksema, Kersten, Kuyper, Schilder, Vander Schuit and Woelderink would all look to the great master for confirmation. We realize this; nevertheless, the few passages quoted seem to make it clear that he taught what we said he taught: the Covenant of Grace is broader than election; the Covenant of Grace is made with believers and all their natural seed.


The Post-Confessional Period Index

We cannot just jump into the twentieth century and consider the current status of the debate on the covenant. Kuyper was not the inventor of the doctrine of presumed regeneration and Kersten was not the first to oppose it. To trace the history from the early seventeenth century to today, in detail, is quite beyond the scope of these lectures; to skip it altogether would leave an inexcusable gap in our understanding. Unfortunately, very little has been written in English which covers this. There are the various dogmatics, such as by Heyns, ten Hoor, Berkhof, Hoeksema; these each give their own view and little in the way of overview and next to nothing in the way of historical oversight and critique. The only current book, known to me, which does give an historical survey is the expensive ($100) The Thousand Generation Covenant, by Jonathan Gerstner. Much of our material for this section will be drawn from him. We do not have access to the primary sources. In the Dutch language, the rather massive Rondom de Doopvont (edited by W. Van't Spijker, e.a.) provides excellent detail and in depth material covering this period. Also this source of information is heavily relied on in this section.

When we speak of the "Post-Confessional period" we refer to the era beginning right after the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19. The Canons produced by this Synod is the last of the modern confessional statements of the (Dutch) Reformed churches. As far as development in Reformed theology is concerned, we can limit our scope to the Netherlands. In Germany, Lutheranism won the day and quickly declined into formalism, to be nudged by the Pietism of the 1700's. In England, the Reformed cause struggled on for quite a while, flowered under the Puritans from the mid 1600's until late in the 1700's when the rationalism of the Enlightenment swept over much of Europe and caused this movement to go into decline. The Puritans were pastors, more than theologians. They were practical, while their Dutch cousins were more theoretical. German Pietism and English Puritanism, although of quite different natures, did both have an influence upon the Netherlands. In some respects, they even touched each other - but that is a subject for another time. The book Assurance of Faith by Dr. J. R. Beeke, details the relation between English Puritanism and the Dutch "Second Reformation", which movement took place within the period we are now considering.

Generally we may mark this period as a time of strength and wealth for the Dutch nation; it was the "Golden Age". Outward strength and wealth, however, masked inward weakness and poverty. It was a time of decline for the church. The formalism of many in the State Church, the control over the Church by the State, the conflict between the House of Orange, supported by the (generally orthodox Reformed) common people and the States-General, favoured by the (generally not-so-orthodox) newly rich merchant classes - it all pictures a small, bustling nation in which sharp religious differences will develop. And so it was.

Voetians And Cocceians Index

Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Cocceius were both Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century. Voetius was of the "high" Calvinist party; he had readily concurred with the pronouncements of Dordt, at which he had been a delegate. Cocceius was more moderate in his views; he had been too young to be at the great Synod. A conflict developed between these men, primarily to do with the "method" of doing theology. Cocceius accused Voetius and his followers of being too "scholastic" (not to be confused with "scholarly"): in their methods they were too bound by the "Schoolmen" of the earlier Middle Ages, who were devout followers of the methods of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. However, although it may not be true of Cocceius himself, the school of thought which was formed by his followers was not averse to following the methods of the then living French philosopher, René Descartes. The implications of all this we need not enter into right now. Suffice to say that the struggle between the two camps was never really resolved, it split the church into two camps (the "Precise Ones" and the "Stretchable Ones" [my translation of "Preciesen" and "Rekkelijken"]) and it only gradually died down after the death of these leading figures.

Although Cocceius is sometimes credited with being the "Father" of covenant theology, this is not correct, as Gerstner points out. It is true that he, perhaps more than any other, gave form and content to the triple covenant concept of Covenant of Works, Redemption and Grace (42); however, Cocceius made a sharp distinction between the Old and New Testaments, claiming that OT believers did not receive complete forgiveness of sin or righteousness. In fact, he so sharply divided the two dispensations that he rejected the Sabbath " a ceremonial yoke no longer binding on the Christian". (43) Such an approach to the distinctions between the Old and New Testaments can hardly be expected to bring about a healthy covenant view.

Although we will not go further into the Voetian - Cocceian controversy, we mention this because it forms the background to so much of what happened in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands during this time. The development of covenantal views takes place against this background.

What kind of "holiness"?

One of the major issues in this development is the meaning of "holiness" in 1 Cor. 7:14. The first question of the classical Form for Baptism states of the children that they are "sanctified (or 'holy') in Christ". It is striking that in the edition which we have, this term is marked with an asterisk and proof texts are given: Ezek. 16:21 and 1 Cor. 7:14. That, in itself, is an indication that there may be a problem. Indeed, there was. What kind of holiness did these children possess? Did it mean they were externally holy, that is, separated from the world and dedicated to God in the external sense only, or did it mean there was an internal, spiritual and saving holiness in them? This question, in turn, reflected different baptism practices. The governments of the states Holland and Zeeland (now provinces of the Netherlands) decreed in the ecclesiastical laws of 1576 that all children, without distinction, should be baptized. (44) Some think that it was common practice to baptise not only the children of members of the church but also the children of excommunicated people, Roman Catholics and plain non church going folk. Whether this was indeed so has not yet been established with any certainty (45), but research does indicate that the baptism practice of the early Reformed Church of the Netherlands was broad. If we ask why this was so, we may have to think along the lines of a carry-over from Roman Catholicism and, closely related to it, the idea of the state church, in which every citizen of the state is, by definition, a member of the church. Such a broad practice would lead to the idea of "external holiness", meaning that the holiness pointed to no more than that the children were not heathens. Of course, this idea is still prevalent in our society and is shown in the fact that many people who otherwise never attend church and can hardly be said to be members, insist on having their children baptized or "christened".

As stated, the post-confessional period was one of spiritual decline. As this set in and as it became more and more evident that many of these baptized people possessed no "holiness" at all, opposition arose to this concept of "external holiness". This occurred especially during the time of the "Second Reformation". As a result, the Form for Baptism became an item not only of discussion but of division.

The Classic Reformed Form for Baptism Index

This form, which had been born in the German area known as the Palatinate (south western Germany) and was originally the work of Zacharias Ursinus and, especially, Casper Olevianus, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, had come into the Dutch church via various stations along the way. Abridged, amended and adjusted several times (46), finally standardized by the Synod of Dordt (47), it really was "...a patchwork quilt of a variety of sources" (48) which reflected not only the influence of Calvin but also that of Luther. Having been produced primarily by Olevianus,

"The original form is thus the product of the moderate spirit of Heidelberg which was attempting to guard itself against the charges of innovation from the Lutherans...One could say the form has a split personality. It begins with a Reformed explanation of the sacrament as a sealing covenant, but then proceeds to pray that God would forgive the child his sins, administer the baptism, and then thank God for having forgiven the child his sins. Thus the second half sounds much more in keeping with Lutheran or Roman Catholic baptismal regeneration than with the Reformed covenantal holiness view of any school... The most likely explanation is that Olevianus felt no need to be charged with unnecessary innovation in the ritual by the Lutherans." (49)

This latter statement, that Olevianus wished to avoid criticism from Lutheran side, begs to be proven. It does seem apparent that the history of the various liturgical forms shows a willingness to compromise on the basis of thorough theological discussion, but the charge made against Olevianus needs further evidence before we can make it stick. The views of Datheen and Olevianus seem to have been widely accepted among the general church population. Whether this was due to a popular carry over of lingering Roman Catholic ideas of baptismal regeneration, is hard to determine. Whatever the case may be, the point is that much discussion ensued over the matter of the holiness of the children. It is a discussion which is still ongoing and which seems not about to end. We will examine various contributors to the debate, which started already before Dort and in which opposition to the optimistic views came more and more to the fore.

Petrus Dathenus (1531-1588) - perhaps best known for his translation of the Genevan Psalter, accepted for use as the exclusive song book of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands in 1568 (and still in use there in some very conservative Reformed churches), was a strong proponent of the "internal holiness" view. The phrase, "sanctified in Christ", was added to the Form by him when he translated the original from the hand of Olevianus. Typical of the early Reformed in the Netherlands, he had an extremely optimistic view of the spiritual state of the children of believers. Remember, all this was developed in the context of the struggle against the Anabaptists! Datheen said, in fact, "all children that are born of believing parents are saved, since they are taken up in God's covenant". (50) Strong language, indeed! He did clarify this by stating that he knew that later many children through unbelief and unrepentant living fall out of the covenant and lose the divine grace. (51)

The Anabaptists time and again insisted the Reformed were wrong in baptizing their children as this sacrament was a seal of the righteousness of faith. Infants do not have faith; therefore, they ought not to be baptized.

Zacharius Ursinus (1534-1583) in his very influential commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, replying to this charge when speaking of the baptism of infant children of believers, writes, "Faith is in infants potentially and by inclination, although not actually as in adults." (52) Ursinus and others, in the early part of the seventeenth century, taught that covenant children had a form of grace which could be lost if they did not, when come to the years of discretion, press on, in grace, in the ways of God. They spoke, therefore of "amissable" grace - i.e. grace that can be lost. Ursinus wrote "All children are in the covenant and in the church of God, until they shut themselves out." (53) This bold statement was later amended by others, in view of the events which took place at the Synod of Dordt. It was felt that such a statement would be confusing, especially since similar arguments had been used by the Arminians. One editor of Ursinus' work (Festus Hommius, secretary of that synod and one of the translators of the States Bible) deleted this statement and weakened others, often without indicating that he was changing the words of Ursinus. The result was that the strong view that children are redeemed until they prove otherwise, was weakened to the view that children are assumed to be redeemed until they prove otherwise. (54) "In the period immediately following Dort, internal holiness remained the standard view, but in the sense of presupposed regeneration rather than amissable covenant grace." (55)

Willem Teelinck (1579-1629) was one of the earliest leaders of the Second Reformation. Almost contemporary with Dathenus, he held to quite a different view on the matter of the "holiness" of covenant children. Converted in England, married to an English woman, he was one of the main bridges to the Puritan movement. Deeply convinced of the need of a personal experience of grace, Teelinck saw "baptism not as a seal of our faith toward him, but of God's grace toward us, which precedes any response we give." (56) He made it clear that the holiness of 1 Cor. 7:14 did not mean that infants of believers are already in a state of redemption but, as with the children of Israel of old, it meant that they were "set apart from other peoples and in a state to be permitted to use externally the holy things of God..." (57). This is a clear expression of the "external holiness" view. Already here, we see the appearance of two distinct views on this vexing matter.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) - his name has already been mentioned in connection with the controversy with the followers of Cocceius. Voetius was the most influential theologian of his time and, perhaps of all Dutch theologians. His life was marked by logical precision and deep piety. In the issue at hand, he clearly chose for "internal holiness". In fact, he stated that infants should be baptized '"because they have the Holy Ghost and forgiveness of sins just as much as the adults". Thus Voetius unambiguously affirms that children not only have the Holy Spirit, but the forgiveness of sins, as infants, before they believe. This is a very strong rejection of the necessity of the means of grace for initiating the work of grace in children of believers.' (58) If we are going to look for the roots of the idea of "presumptive regeneration" we must look to Dathenus, Ursinus and Voetius, rather than to Kuyper.

Jacobus Borstius (1612-1680) wrote an influential children's catechism which is still being used in some circles. Although he did not mention the subject of covenantal holiness as such, his presentation makes it clear that he holds to external holiness. When he warned the little children to flee the eternal wrath of God, he could not well have held to the view that all these little ones were already saved. Saved children need not fear nor flee from the wrath of God. From Dathenus to Borstius - a period of less than one hundred years but a very long period indeed as far as this issue is concerned.

Jacobus Koelman (1632-1695) was one of the outstanding leaders of the Second Reformation. He coined the term, "Nadere Reformatie", to describe the attempts to further purify the church along Reformed lines. In his influential work The Responsibility of Parents to Raise their Children for God, "...he makes very clear that children of believers must be assumed not to be redeemed until they prove otherwise."(59) He held to this view in contrast with most Dutch theologians. He made a strong defence for the position that the message of the gospel, "you can only be saved by conversion and faith", is equally true for regenerate and unregenerate alike while to preach "you are already redeemed by Christ" can be applied only to the regenerate. Since both groups are under the preaching, the former approach is correct. Koelman carried this view through in his instructions to parents for raising their children: the children must not pray as if they already have the benefits such as regeneration and faith if, in fact, they have not yet received them. His ability to cut through the widely accepted covenant automatism, held to even by many of the Second Reformation, is perhaps due to his close contact with the English Puritans. Koelman was wary of liturgical forms, a typically Puritan reaction, and he must have had great difficulty with the Form for Baptism. His consistent view on covenant holiness as being only of an external nature was well ahead of its time. (60)

Bernardus Smytegelt (1665-1739) is another example of Puritan and Second Reformation contact. The focal point of his ministry was to lead his people to personal conversion; a matter which is clearly reflected in his catechism sermons. He sternly taught the necessity of learning one's misery from the Law before one could come to salvation in Christ. He attacks many abuses which had become acceptable practice in connection with baptism:

"Ministers read the Form for Baptism ... without heart, without reverence, without attention; and the congregation hears it without reverence. Ministers just jabber away. To the hearers it is just the same: whether they may now talk or laugh or have an opportunity to relax. Never in our life have we seen it like this, wherever we have lived or preached the gospel, that they leave the church to go home, yes, even to go to the coffee house". (61)

Smytegelt really seems to have added little to the development of covenantal thinking; his concern was to apply the "three parts" of the Catechism to the spiritual journey of the believer. This did make it necessary for him to maintain the external holiness approach.

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) is perhaps the most influential of all, especially through the tremendous popularity of his practical and devotional dogmatics. This work is now, for the first time, available in English as The Christian's Reasonable Service. With respect to the matter at hand, Brakel writes,

"One must also consider them to be true partakers and children of the covenant as they grow older, until they show by their deeds that they are unfaithful to the covenant and thus are no partakers of its promises. They then do not fall from grace, nor is the seal nullified; rather, it is a proof that baptism was not a seal for them and that they have never truly been in the covenant." (62)

Despite the translator's footnote denying that there is a connection between this view and the views of Dr. Abraham Kuyper, which are generally referred to as "Presumptive Regeneration", one is hard pressed to ignore the obvious connection. On the other hand, to say that Kuyper's views accord with those of Brakel, even at this point, is absolutely incorrect.

It is unclear what Brakel really understood by "sanctified in Christ". He rejected the notion of an external covenant; yet, he stated that " means in a general sense that children of members of the covenant, by virtue of the covenant made with them and their children, are entitled to its benefits and will become partakers with them. This is in distinction to the children of those who are not members of the covenant and for whom there are no promises in the Word." (63) (emphasis added). In the same place, he just as strongly denies that it means that the baptized children are elect and will be converted.

What does Brakel believe on this point? Woelderink leaves it quite up in the air when he writes, "What then is this sanctification in Christ for Brakel, if it is not the sanctification of an external covenant and neither regeneration or the having in oneself the root of faith or of sanctification? I leave the decision to my readers, but I expect that they will not be able to say it either." (64)(emphasis added). According to Gerstner, Brakel held to the idea of "decretal holiness": a holiness which is rooted in God's decree:

"Fourthly, one can view elect children either as they are from God's perspective, or as they are in themselves. God knows them as being elect, as heirs of eternal life, and as being redeemed through the death of their Surety, Jesus Christ. As they are in themselves, they are identical to all other children, missing the image of God, having the image of the devil, without the seed of faith, without regeneration and the least gracious inclination, without the indwelling of the Holy spirit, and thus, hateful and worthy of condemnation. Therefore, the basis for their baptism is neither a measure of grace which they have within themselves, nor eternal election, which is hidden from us." (65)

Although this passage may lend itself to this view, one must wonder whether it is legitimate to conclude that this is, indeed, the full fledged view of Brakel.

Three things are interesting and worthy of note: 1) Brakel teaches that not all children of believers are "truly" in the covenant; 2) baptism is to be administered to them not because of any grace inherent in them, nor because they are elect but because God, in his decree, "knows them as being elect, as heirs of eternal life, and as being redeemed through the death of their Surety, Jesus Christ"; 3) he alludes to the fact that children may have "the seed of faith" - a notion from John Calvin which will later on be of considerable importance in the thought of Kuyper. In addition, it must benoted that in his dealing with the Covenant of Grace as such, Brakel does teach that it is made with the elect only. (66)

Abraham Hellenbroek (1658-1731) a close personal friend of Brakel and a learned man, his influence reached throughout generations through his catechism "A Specimen of Divine Truths". Although rather vague on the reasons for infant baptism, his practical comments make it clear that he saw the promises of the covenant as being for the elect only. In this, he was in full agreement with Brakel: children are to be baptized because one has grounds to believe they are elect and, therefore, heirs of the promise; such baptized children, as a rule, are not held to be regenerated in their infancy. (67)

Although it would be an over simplification to say that no further covenant development took place until the late nineteenth century, it is true that from now until that time, no major shifts in thinking occurred. The mainline Reformed church went more deeply into decline: the effect of the Enlightenment took its toll; the influence of the Second Reformation waned; the thought patterns which led to the French Revolution later in the century began to cast their shadows over Europe and it would not be until after the dying tremors of the collapsing French Empire had ceased that the Reformed Church in the Netherlands would again be embroiled in this controversy.

What we see develop in the period after the Synod of Dort is a two track approach in understanding the Covenant of Grace: early on, by far the majority held that all children of believers are internally holy: they are redeemed or, at least, presumed to have been born again until they show otherwise later in life; later, in the 1700's, others, in view of the lack of spirituality evidenced by many of these baptized children in their maturity, conclude that the holiness is no more than external, separating them from Roman Catholics, pagans and heretics. Ultimately this tends towards the view that, if they are to be held internally holy, this must be seen as being so only in the decree of God (Brakel) and, since not all baptized children are saved, the conclusion was drawn that therefore, they were not all in the covenant. This, of course, must lead to the conclusion that the Covenant is made with the elect only.


Chart Showing Dates, Names and Relative Positions on "Internal - External" Holiness


Petrus Dathenus - children of believers are regenerated

Zacharius Urinus - they have "amissable" grace  

Gisbertus Voetius - children have grace before they believe

Willem Teelinck - Puritan influence Strictly external


Jacobus Borstius - children's catechism "Flee God's wrath" - implied external


Jacobus Koelman - assume children not regenerate until prove otherwise


Wilhelmus à Brakel- "decreetal holiness" Covenant with elect only -- ??

  Abraham Hellenbroek
  Bernardus Smytegelt


Next Page

End Notes

34. ReturnIrenaeus, "Against Heresies" in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), p.429.

35. ReturnB. Loonstra, "De Historische Wortels van de Leer Aangaande het Verbond" in Theologica Reformata, Vol. XXX, No. 1, (Goes: Drukkerij Oosterbaan & Le Cointre,1987), p.49.

36. ReturnMuch of the information reflected in the overview of the Reformers on this subject (with the exception of Calvin) is drawn from the above named article by B. Loonstra.

37. Return "A. A. Hoekema, "The Covenant of Grace in Calvin's Teaching" in Calvin Theological Journal, (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1967), Vol.2, No.2, p.135.

38. ReturnJohn Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), IV, 16, 5.

39. ReturnIbid, III, 21, 5 & 6.

40. ReturnIbid. III, 21. 7.

41. ReturnLoc. cit.

42. ReturnJ. De Gier, "Gerrit Achterberg: Eeuwigheid in Plaats van Tijd", in Theologia Reformata, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, (December 1995, p.291.

43. ReturnJ.N. Gerstner, The Thousand Generation Covenant, Dutch Reformed Covenant Theology and Group Identity in Colonial South Africa, 1652-1814(Leiden, New York, Kobenhaven, Köln: E. J. Brill, 1991), p.72

44. ReturnC. A. Tukker, "Het Klassieke Doopformulier", in W. van 't Spijker, e.a. Rondom de Doopvont, De Groot Goudriaan, Kampen, the Netherlands, 1983, p.313

45. ReturnIbid.

46. ReturnOp. Cit. p.314

47. ReturnGerstner, loc.cit. p. 48

48. Returnop.cit.p.58

49. Returnop.cit. p.49

50. Returnop.cit. p.55, quoting Fr. W. Cuno, Der Heidelberge Katechismus, as cited in Johannes De Boer, Gods Verbond met onze Kinderen (Aalten: De Graafschap, n.d.), pp.52-53.

51. ReturnIbid.

52.ReturnThe Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated from the original Latin by the Rev. G. W. Williard, A.M. Second American Edition. Columbus: Scott & Bascom, Printers, 1852, p.370

53. Returnquoted by Gerstner, op.cit. p.121

54. ReturnIbid.

55. ReturnIbid.

56. Returnop.cit. p. 126

57. ReturnIbid.

58. ReturnGerstner, op.cit.p.122

59. Returnop.cit. p. 130

60. Returnop.cit pp.130-132

61. ReturnB. Smytegelt, Des Christens Eenige Troost in Leven en Sterven, (unaltered edition of 1747) republished by J. H. Kok, Kampen, the Netherlands (no date), Vol. 1, p.371

62. ReturnW. à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, translated by Bartel Elshout, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Ligonier, PA, 1993, Vol. 2 p.506

63. ReturnOp.cit., Vol 2 p.507

64. ReturnJ.G. Woelderink, Op.cit. p.182

65. ReturnBrakel, op.cit., Vol.2 p.505

66. ReturnOp.cit., Vol.1 p.429

67. ReturnGerstner, op.cit. p. 142