“We will not keep them from our children; we will tell the next generation about the LORD’s power and his great deeds and the wonderful things he has done” (Psalm 78:4).
It’s good to be reacquainted with the LORD’s “great deeds and the wonderful things He has done”. Therefore we commemorate the Church Liberation of 1944 – 11th August 75 years ago. Therein the LORD graciously liberated His people from false teachings and unscriptural church hierarchy. The synod had imposed on God’s people a doctrine which we call ‘presumptive regeneration’. It robbed believers of the comfort of God’s covenant promises made at baptism and left them in the fog of uncertainty.
The late Rev W G de Vries[i] told something of this Liberation of 1944 on a visit to Western Australia in 2002. I pass on (below) the prologue to his talk in which he explains clearly how the truth of God’s Word was attacked by Synod’s actions. This is the Liberation in which we, FRCA, have our roots. Understandably it had a profound influence in establishing our migrant ecclesiastical life in this country and we continue to reap, by the grace of God, the blessed benefits.
Allow me to begin with a personal anecdote. I find that important as also here there are many young people who have not experienced personally the liberation of 1944. Now in 1942, when the binding doctrinal pronouncements by the general synod of Utrecht 1942 were made, I was a youth of 16. I knew virtually nothing about the first and second secession of the previous century. I’d barely heard of Greijdanus and Schilder, Professors at the Theological College at Kampen. And for the rest? You went to Church, you attended Catechism and Youth Club. Often on Sundays, children were baptised; but why exactly that happened, and what the background to it was, barely penetrated your mind.
But then came a brochure by Professor Dr S Greijdanus wherein the doctrinal pronouncements of 1942 were attacked. The Synod had namely demanded that at every infant baptism one should presume that the baptised child was regenerated. Now regeneration referred to something like the beginning of faith. Abraham Kuyper, a leader in the second secession of 1886 and the founder of the Free University at Amsterdam, had had his bit to say about this. He used an image from nature, as he did more often. In Egypt, near the Pyramids in the sand, grains of wheat had been found. These dated back to the time before Christ’s birth. When these grains of wheat were placed in fruitful soil they began to germinate and produced ears full of wheat. Amazing!
Well now, said Kuyper, it’s the same with faith. It’s like a grain of wheat that begins to germinate and bear fruit. When a child is baptised, faith lies like a grain of wheat in his heart. And as he grows up that faith begins to bear fruit. That’s why at each baptism you must start from the position that the germ of faith is present in the child. If this is not the case, the baptism is not true. But because we can’t see into the heart of infants, we presume that this germ of faith is present in the child. For baptism is a seal of faith. Also in little children. Obviously that doesn’t apply to every child, but we ignore the exceptions and apply as rule that we baptise on the basis of presumed faith. If it becomes evident that the child as it grows up does not believe, then it wasn’t really baptised.
A Professor at Kampen, Dr K Dijk, wrote about it saying that a child that was not regenerated at baptism, that didn’t have the germ of faith, really wasn’t truly baptised. He even called this spilling water! Thus you are suddenly confronted by the question of what the ground was for baptising children in the Church.
In the brochure of Professor Greijdanus it was stated that this reasoning of Kuyper didn’t make sense. For at every baptism God promised something that He really meant. He promised that He was the Father of this baptised child and that He wanted to purify it of sins through Christ’s blood. You didn’t have to presume this, it was fact. If that child later did not come to faith, then this didn’t depend on the baptism, but on the fact that it did not accept the promises of baptism.
To make this clear Greijdanus used the example of two glasses on which a certain amount of water was poured. If the opening of the glass was at the top, then it would be filled with water. If the glass is upside down, not a drop of water will go into it. How come? Not because there wasn’t just as much water poured onto both glasses but because the one glass stood open to receive it and the other didn’t.
It’s the same with infant baptism. The water of baptism is a seal of God’s promise for every child. The one child as it grows up is open to the promises of the covenant signed and sealed in baptism and accepts them. But another child is not open to it and rejects through unbelief the promises truly/really meant by God. However, God’s promise was seriously addressed to both children. If it becomes evident that someone later doesn’t believe, this is not a result therefore of a deficiency in God’s promise but is a result of unbelief.
This matter was clear to me. But the Synod, in its doctrinal statement and further explanation, pronounced that a child that did not come to faith had nor really been baptised. It could not have received the “full baptism”. Thereby the blame was therefore really placed with God although of course they didn’t mean to do this. They claimed that the real true full baptism only applied to the elect. Only the elect were really members of the covenant, of the internal covenant. Whoever did not come to faith would only belong to the covenant “in a certain sense”, to the external side of the covenant.
Now this teaching is not to be found anywhere in the Bible. But it does relate to the basis of your life! Has God really given me rich promises, or must I just presume that? Now faith is always a response to promises. If you don’t know that these promises are certain you will also not know what you must believe. Can you rely on God’s promises, yes or no? If that is left in the fog, there will be uncertainty.
That’s why Rev PK Keizer of Groningen published a brochure at that time titled “Devouring Uncertainty”. If you can’t rely on God’s promises the foundation is pulled away from beneath your life.
That this was not just a theoretical matter is evident from the discussions about this that took place during my youth. When Rev Keizer held a sermon about infant baptism (Lord’s Day 27) and emphasized that at baptism God gives every child the same promise, the duty elder refused to shake hands with him at the conclusion of the service. According to him Rev Keizer had contradicted the teaching of Synod. Then a brother in the congregation stood up and cried: “The duty elder refused to shake hands with the minister; I propose that we sing: ‘The Lord now bless you from above’”. As one body the entire congregation which had filled the Church building to capacity stood up and sang this to the minister. That’s how emotional the matters stood at that time.
At that time the matters were discussed and debated at High School by teachers and students. During a Bible Study meeting two elders attended on behalf of Consistory. But the reality was different. The topic was infant baptism and these elders who clung to the teachings of Synod were sent to make sure that the discussion did not contradict the pronouncements about infant baptism made by Synod! That’s how emphatically the doctrinal pronouncements of Synod were applied.
Now many appealed to Mark 16:16. Even the Pentecostals and Baptists still do that today. But it says there: “Whoever believes and is baptised shall be saved”. So, people say, first you must believe and only then can you be baptised. That is then also applied to babies; they must first believe otherwise they may not be baptised. So we wait until they are adults and have confessed their faith. In other words, adult baptism.
But thereby you rip this text from its context. Christ here gave the command to preach the Gospel throughout the world; the mission command. That message comes to adults, to heathens. Naturally they can only be baptised when they have embraced the faith. But if they have children then these are grafted into God’s covenant along with their believing parents. That’s why in the New Testament we often read about whole families being baptised; parents with their children. For the promise of God applies to both believers and their children. The children are not baptised because they believe but because together with their parents they belong to God’s covenant. That’s why Peter also says on the day of Pentecost: “To you is the promise and to your children” (Acts 2:39).
Calvin therefore said that the children are baptised in order that they would learn to believe. That’s totally different than because they believe. Very soberly Calvin pointed to 1 Thessalonians 3:10 which says: “If someone will not work, he also shall not eat”. You can’t apply that to babies that are still in the cradle! They don’t work. May they therefore then not eat? We know better. It’s exactly the same with infant baptism. Of adults, of people outside the Church, the rule applies; first believe and then be baptised. But with children it’s different. They have not yet reached the age of discernment. Therefore, we cannot address them on the basis of their faith. They are baptised when their parents are grafted into God’s covenant not because they believe but in order that they will learn to believe. But this faith can only rest on the serious promises given by God.
Well now, this was put in the fog by the doctrinal pronouncements of 1942. The Synod established that every child would have to be regenerated at baptism. If they weren’t, it wasn’t a true baptism. And this teaching was bound so strictly to candidates of the ministry that at their exams Classis insisted that they agreed with these doctrinal pronouncements. If they didn’t, they were not given access to the pulpit. Indeed, it was demanded of all Church members that they were not to teach anything that did not fully agree with these doctrinal pronouncements. A reign of terror took hold of the churches. It affected each Church differently.
It was not the different views that led to the break in 1942. Throughout the ages different views about infant baptism had been held. But never had the Churches bound themselves exclusively to one particular view. Yet that’s what happened in 1942. And thereby the confessional basis upon which the Reformed Churches had lived for three centuries was narrowed down to a sectarian view.
One representative (Dr A Polman) called the Synod the “Mother of the Church”. And surely you must be obedient to your mother! On its own initiative Synod could deal with any matter it wanted. Even if no single Church had asked for it to be dealt with.
That’s how in 1936 the matter of the different views on infant baptism was tabled. And that’s where things already went wrong. A new order of doing things in the Church was introduced whereby the Synod was seen as a meeting that had ecclesiastical authority – just as a consistory has – and could also exercise discipline. We call this hierarchy; the desire of Synods to lord it over the Churches. That is what led to the break.
[i] Rev. Dr WG de Vries (1926-2006) was minister in the GKv and wrote several books, one of which has been translated into English as Marriage in Honour.