Covenant, Antithesis and the Secession: A Response to Rev. Nathan Langerak
The December 1, 2013 issue of The Standard Bearer includes an article by Rev. Nathan Langerak entitled “The Juggernaut of Apostasy.” The Standard Bearer is the magazine of the Protestant Reformed Churches and Rev. Langerak is the pastor of the PRC in Crete, Illinois. In this article (under the rubric of All Around Us), Rev. Langerak takes note of developments in the Netherlands with the Reformed Churches (Liberated). He notes that there have been departures from the RCN in the last number of years because of various concerns. He specifically discusses the concerns expressed by Rev. S. de Marie. Langerak also notes the recent book published by Prof. G. Dekker regarding developments in the RCN from 1970 to 2010. Langerak’s conclusion is that the RCN has departed from orthodoxy because of its compromising the doctrine of the antithesis. He traces this back to flaws in the Liberated doctrine of the covenant. He encourages the churches that have departed from the RCN to complete their reformation by returning to a doctrine of the covenant which includes “an unconditional promise given to the elect only, and a covenant made with the elect alone…” He says that this doctrine of the covenant is the doctrine of the covenant held by the fathers of the Secession of 1834.
Rev. Langerak’s article deserves a response. The PRCA have ecumenical contacts and missionary efforts all over the world, and some of those contacts and efforts overlap with those of the CanRC. I’m thinking here especially of the contacts we have with Reformed believers in places like Singapore and the Philippines. My concern is that some of these believers might read Rev. Langerak’s article and develop an impression based solely on what he says.
Here in North America, mostly the PRCA and CanRC have little to do with each other. There are only a few locales where we each have churches. Back in the day, when I lived in Edmonton, I briefly taught Bible part-time at the CanRC Christian school. We did have some PRC students in the school there and it made for some interesting discussions in the classroom. The PRCA has sent observers to NAPARC in recent years. I have had some pleasant and edifying interactions with faculty of the PRCA seminary. A couple of years ago, the entire faculty and student body came to a conference at Westminster Seminary California. I was at this conference as well and we had some good friendly discussions over lunch and coffee. All this is to say that I don’t have an axe to grind with the PRCA. I respect them as Reformed churches who want to be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions. I sincerely believe that we belong together as brothers in Christ. I understand that many (most?) in the PRCA don’t and can’t see it that way, but I hope and pray that they will in time.
Rev. Langerak’s article was not written to persuade readers of the PRC view of the covenant. He is writing for a PRC audience who are already convinced of that view. I recognize that. If anything, it seems to me that he was hoping to shore up that view by pointing out what happens to churches that don’t have the proper (PRC) view. I understand that type of article, since I’ve written a few like that myself.
We need to keep this in mind when, for instance, Rev. Langerak writes that “The RCNlib were opposed and still are opposed to the truth of God’s Word and of the Reformed creeds that God makes His covenant 0nly with His elect.” Langerak does not develop or defend that statement. He simply takes it as an obvious fact that “covenant with the elect” is the view of Scripture and the Confessions. His PRC readers will no doubt nod their heads in agreement. This argument is old and the pros and cons can go back and forth endlessly. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pages of Clarion and the Standard Bearer featured many exchanges between Prof. David Engelsma and CanRC seminary professors such as Prof. J. Geertsema and Dr. J. DeJong. The predominant CanRC position is that the covenant is made with believers and their children. No official statement has ever been made on such a doctrine, but it is widely held in the CanRC that this is the position of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity. The PRC position is that the covenant is made with the elect. As I understand it, this is an official position of the PRCA.
I suppose I could enter my own views and defend them here. I would anticipate that Rev. Langerak would then respond and we could go back and forth like the days of old. He would hold his position, I would hold mine, and everyone would watch with interest as these two Reformed ministers butt heads for a while and nothing would change. I’m not interested. If you’re interested in those polemics, then check out the 1991-1992 issues of Clarion. They’re now available online right here. You’d want to start with the October 11, 1991 issue and the beginning of the exchange between Prof. Engelsma and Dr. J. DeJong. That discussion is representative of any that might take place between a PRC minister and a CanRC minister.
No, I’m first of all more interested in whether there is any credence to the position that the downfall of the RCN is linked to covenant theology. Because, if this is true, then we might reasonably expect the same to happen in the CanRC or in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, or any place where we have had any influence. Does a doctrine of the covenant that says that the covenant is with believers and their children invariably lead to apostasy? Does such a covenant doctrine betray the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis?
To respond, first of all, Rev. Langerak’s position relies on the sociological research of Prof. Dekker. Prof. Dekker identifies the root of the RCN’s changes as being a new openness. According to Rev. Langerak, openness is “the exact opposite of the antithesis.” The antithesis has been lost and this has resulted in worldliness and accommodation to the surrounding culture. Rev. de Marie agrees with this assessment. For him, the loss of the antithesis explains the deterioration of orthodoxy and orthopraxis in the RCN. However, Langerak says that de Marie does not go far enough because he fails to recognize that the antithesis was compromised already in the doctrine of the covenant as developed by Schilder and others.
Prof. Dekker’s research has been criticized in the Netherlands on various points. I’m not sure about all the points raised, but one thing that could be said is that when looking at historical events, one has to be cautious about hanging one’s hat solely on one cause. History is always complex and to say that the contemporary situation in the RCN can be traced back to one doctrinal cause is overly simplistic, no matter what that cause might be. Especially since we are still so close to the events and in some sense still enmeshed in them, I don’t think anyone can identify one particular cause at this point. I don’t think Prof. Dekker can do that, neither can Rev. de Marie, much less Rev. Langerak (who doesn’t even live in the Netherlands). When I teach church history, I tell my students to be wary of simplistic causal explanations. We should be wary of Rev. Langerak’s position that covenant theology caused the RCN to be where they are today. Hypothetically, it may have played a role. But realistically, things are usually far more complex. When historians write about these days in 100 or 200 years, I am sure they will have more to say.
Now I cannot speak for my colleagues in the Netherlands, nor can I do that for my colleagues here in Canada. I can only speak for myself and the way I preach and teach. The way I preach and teach has been shaped by my education at the CanRC seminary as well as my upbringing in the CanRC. I believe and teach that the covenant of grace is with believers and their children. However, I also emphasize the antithesis between belief and unbelief. In several sermons, I have said that the antithesis also runs through the church and in the covenant of grace. I see no contradiction between that and the view that the covenant is with believers and their children. I believe it’s vitally important to maintain both. The call to repentance and faith needs to be heard amongst God’s people too. So, on a theological level, I do not see that it follows that the widely-held view of the covenant in the CanRC (or Liberated churches) almost invariably leads to the loss of the antithesis and heterodoxy. There is no necessary connection between those things.
Last of all, I want to respond to Rev. Langerak’s comment about the Secession of 1834. He urges Rev. de Marie and his churches to complete their reformation by going back to the covenant doctrine of the Secession, which is to say a doctrine of the covenant with the elect only. This is a place where the facts are against Rev. Langerak. Amongst the Secession churches, there was a division early on between the “Drenthe group” and the “Gelderland group.” One of the dominant early figures in the Gelderland group was Prof. A. Brummelkamp. Later figures included J. A. Wormser and Helenius de Cock (son of Hendrik). Amongst these figures the view was that the covenant of grace was established with believers and their children. There were Secession theologians who held to a covenant with the elect. But that was not the only view found amongst them. Therefore, when Rev. Langerak exhorts Rev. de Marie and his followers to return to the covenant doctrine of the Secession, one might very well ask: which covenant doctrine of the Secession? As Dr. Jelle Faber put it in his insightful little book American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism, “…there is no Secession theology concerning covenant and baptism” (26).
Like so many others, I deeply lament what has happened in the Netherlands with our sister churches. There are still faithful believers and churches in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, but when a church federation is even entertaining the idea of women in office at an official level, you know that things are falling apart. But as I’ve said on this blog previously, we must warn our brothers and sisters while at the same time taking heed to ourselves, lest we too start drifting towards heterodoxy. Rev. Langerak’s article is helpful in that it reminds us in the CanRC that we need to recognize and maintain the antithesis. This is, indeed, a crucial Reformed doctrine and it still needs to be heard from our pulpits and lived in our lives. It is a doctrine that must be embraced by each successive generation. Without it, the church does lose its saltiness and its light does begin to flicker.