A Lesson in History: the Baptism of '44 (1)
C Bouwman - published in Una Sancta Volume 50, Number 10, 22 March 2003
It's standard fair amongst us: God claims for Himself the children He gives to believers. That statement leaves no doubt about the identity of your children and mine: in as much as we are believers, our children belong to God, are His possessions. So our children have a Father in heaven who cares for them even in infancy, have a God who forgives their childish sins, a God who renews them. Even death cannot take them from their Father's hands; if it should happen that the Lord would take one of our children out of this life, we as parents would have no reason to doubt our children's destination. Yes, this is comfort.
There was a time not so long ago, though, when precisely this comfort was denied to parents. Some 60 years ago the Second World War was ravaging Europe, including the Netherlands where so many of our parents and grandparents then lived. As wars go, our grandparents' saw their families threatened by shrapnel and sniper fire and bombs and famine. Particularly the famine affected the vulnerable, including the children, with as result that our ancestors brought infants to the baptism font in church, only to bury numerous of them within a year or two . That made the question very real to our parents and grandparents: were these children God's children or not, and hence saved or not?
We would say today: of course those children belong to God; after all, God claims for Himself those children whom He sovereignly gives to believers. The thing was, though, that in the decades before the War broke out, there was quite some discussion in the Dutch churches about the identity of the children of believers. There were those who insisted that Yes, children of believers belong to God; when they die they go to heaven . Others were equally insistent that No, children of believers do not all necessarily belong to God, do not all necessarily go to heaven when they die . The opposition came largely from the disciples of Abraham Kuyper, who contrasted covenant with election.
Internal & external
The discussions came to a head when the churches met in Synod. In 1943, just as the war was most difficult, the Synod ruled on the place of children in the covenant, and stated that all children of believers were not necessarily truly God's children. That statement of the Synod put our grandparents in limbo; could they then not believe that their youngsters, if they should die in the war, would go to heaven? So it was that our forbears had specific reason to weigh up carefully what the synod said.
What it was that the Synod said? The learned brethren at that Synod divided the covenant into two parts, said at bottom that there were two covenants. They spoke, then, of an internal covenant and an external covenant. What they meant by these phrases was this: the covenant (that's God's bond of love with sinners), said they, could truly be made with you, and if that was the case then you were in the covenant, internal. It could also happen that the covenant was not truly made with you, that it only looked like the real thing, and in that case you were out of the covenant, external.
Now, where did this distinction come from? It must be said first that throughout the centuries of church history this distinction of internal and external covenant had been made more often ; the brothers of the Synod of 1943 did not think that they presented anything new. But then again, there isn't anything new under the sun, not in heresies either, and so one is bound to look at Scripture: what has God revealed, what has God told His people to believe?
The brothers of that Synod considered that they had Scriptural bases for their teaching. They read in the Bible, for example, that God had made His covenant with Abraham and his seed, including, therefore, both Jacob and Esau. They knew further from Scriptures that Jacob later in life believed the gospel and went to heaven when he died, while Esau later in life did not believe the gospel and upon death went to hell. And does Paul not say in Rom 9 that "they are not all Israel who are of Israel"? (vs 6). So the brothers at this Synod concluded: Esau was not truly of the covenant, God had never truly made His covenant with this grandson of Abraham, never really established with him His bond of love. O true, Synod went on to say: while Jacob and Esau were babies, toddlers, youngsters, you could not notice that one was not really in the covenant while the other was. That didn't become apparent until later in life, when faith was obviously present with Jacob and absent with Esau. Well, they said, there you have it: internal covenant and external covenant, complete with Scriptural grounds.
Then the brothers of this Synod went a step further. For: if you can't know until later in life whether your child belongs to the internal covenant or to the external covenant, if you can't really know whether your new-born baby truly belongs to God or not, why in the world should you bother with baptism?? The answer Synod gave was this: you should assume that your new baby is truly a child of God, you should assume that your baby belongs to the internal covenant, that God loves your child. Then they worked out a whole theory surrounding regeneration, about how you as parents should presume that God has already planted the seed of faith in your child's heart so that in fact your baby is already regenerated and that seed of faith will later in life grow into living faith so that your child actually believes the gospel. And on the basis of this assumption -the assumption that the seed of faith is already in your child's heart, the assumption that your child is a Jacob and not an Esau, the assumption that your child belongs to God and not to Satan- on the basis of those assumptions, said the Synod, you should bring your child to the baptism font to receive the sign and seal of the covenant. You will have heard of this doctrine before under the name "presumptive regeneration".
But think about it now: as hunger lurked at the door of your grandparents' house, and as shrapnel and sniper fire and bombs and the other horrors of war threatened the home, what comfort did the teachings of the church leaders in the synod of 1943 give? As your grandparents had to bury the infant who fell victim to the ravages of war, what comfort was there in the assumption that this little Johnny was in the internal covenant, in the assumption that this little child belonged to God and not to Satan? We understand: in assumptions there is no comfort.
Small wonder, then, that our parents and grandparents had to look into the Scriptures themselves to see whether this teaching as presented by Synod 1943 was in fact true. And what did they find in Scripture? The Lord willing, we'll look at that next time.
See J Kamphuis, Een Eeuwig Verbond (Haarlem: Vijlbrief, 1984), pg 95.
cf Kamphuis, pg 35ff. He mentions JC Sikkel, SG deGraaf, A Janse, K Schilder, all of who insisted that the congregation must be seen as a covenant people.
Cf page 43ff.
Kamphuis, pg 21ff. Also, and especially, pg 99.