Thus far my treatment of Bavinck’s view of election and covenant has been largely based upon what he teaches explicitly regarding these subjects in his principal theological writings, the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics and his popular summary of his dogmatics in Our Reasonable Faith. However, further light is shed upon Bavinck’s conception of the relation between the doctrines of election and covenant in his reflection on the implications of this relation for the administration of the sacrament of baptism, especially to the children of believing parents.
Election, Covenant, and Infant Baptism
It is important to remember that Bavinck labored in the context of an ecclesiastical environment, the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, which had witnessed during the nineteenth century a protracted series of controversial debates regarding election, covenant, and infant baptism. Though it is not my purpose to provide an account of this history, or even of Bavinck’s role in these debates, it is instructive to witness the way Bavinck handles this subject, not only in his formal work on Reformed dogmatics, but in his 1903 book on “calling and regeneration” (Eng. trans.: Saved-by-Grace).1 In this volume, which was based upon a lengthy series of articles in the church periodical, De Bazuin (The Trumpet), Bavinck aimed to contribute to a resolution of some of the primary differences that had emerged within the Reformed community of which he was a member.
At the risk of oversimplifying these debates, it should be observed that they arose within an ecclesiastical and pastoral context, and were especially directed to the way the doctrines of election and covenant play a role in understanding the significance of the baptism of children. The recurring question that emerged in the debates of Bavinck’s time was: How should we regard the children of believing parents who receive the sign and seal of the covenant promise in Christ through the sacrament of baptism? Among Bavinck’s contemporaries, two broad answers were given to this question that represented different emphases so far as the doctrines of election and covenant are concerned.
Some theologians, proceeding from the standpoint of election, maintained that such children should be assumed to possess the fullness of God’s grace in Christ, which the sacrament visibly signifies and seals. Since God’s promise is addressed in the strictest sense only to the elect, who alone are granted in accord with God’s purpose of election what the sacrament attests, those who receive this promise in baptism should be assumed to possess all the benefits of salvation in Christ that flow from divine election—regeneration, conversion, union with Christ and its accompanying benefits of justification, sanctification and perseverance. In its most rigorous form, theologians who virtually identified covenant with election sometimes expressed themselves in such a way as to imply that the ground for the baptism of such children is their assumed election and regeneration. Moreover, since the promise of grace that baptism visibly confirms actually belongs only to the elect, these theologians included a few who seemed to regard the baptism of non-elect children as an “unreal” or only an “apparent” baptism. This tendency to proceed from the standpoint of election in the understanding of the administration of the covenant (identifying covenant with election) was associated with the theological views and formulations of Abraham Kuyper, Bavinck’s contemporary and predecessor as professor of dogmatics at the Free University in Amsterdam, and those who were influenced by him.2
Other theologians, proceeding from the standpoint of the covenant in its administration and preferring to keep the doctrine of election “out of purview,” maintained that we should view the baptism of the children of believers only in terms of the objective administration of the covenant. All baptized children ought to be regarded in the same way and upon the basis of the promise of the covenant that was communicated to them sacramentally in their baptism. This does not warrant the assumption that all such children are elect, since the promise that baptism attests is “conditional” in the sense that it requires faith on the part of its recipient. Nor does it warrant the idea that the baptism of the children of believing parents is grounded upon the assumption of the (election and) regeneration of such children. When the church baptizes the children of believing parents, it does not proceed upon the basis of any “presumption” regarding their regeneration, but upon the basis of the Scriptural teaching regarding the administration of the covenant. In this approach, all the children who are baptized should be regarded in the same manner, namely, as those who have received the visible sign and seal of the covenant promise in Christ, which obliges them to respond in the way of faith. Viewed from the standpoint of the covenant’s administration, such children either prove to be faithful to the covenant in the way of faith and obedience, thus receiving the salvation that is promised them in Christ, or prove to be unfaithful in the way of unbelief and disobedience, thus coming under the curse of the covenant. If we regard such children simply from the standpoint of the covenant promise and its obligations, we will avoid the temptation to speculate regarding the election and regeneration of such children.
Upon this second approach to the question of the status of covenant children who have been baptized, it is possible not only to emphasize the “conditional” nature of the covenant relationship but also to speak of those who become “covenant breakers” through their failure to live by the terms of the covenant relationship. Among advocates of this approach to the question, some emphasized more the reality of the objective promise that the sacrament of baptism attests, others emphasized more the obligation of such baptized children to undergo a conversion experience subsequent to their baptism.3
Admittedly, this is only a very schematic representation of the emphases that were expressed among Bavinck’s contemporaries. Within the broad framework of these two tendencies—one viewing the covenant from the standpoint of election, the other viewing the covenant broadly in terms of its historical administration—there were many variations and permutations on these two divergent views. Rather than trace out the diversity of opinions that were expressed in these debates, we will summarize Bavinck’s most important comments on these questions in his 1903 volume and in related sections of the fourth volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, which in its second and final edition was published some years later.
In his 1903 work, Saved by Grace, Bavinck comments on the debates of the period, particularly on some of Abraham Kuyper’s views regarding the question whether regeneration or the new birth by the Holy Spirit is effected with or without the use of the means of grace (Word and sacraments). In the course of his lengthy and, at times, highly complex and theologically careful handling of this question, Bavinck makes several points that are directly related to his conception of the relation between election and covenant. These comments include especially his understanding of the following subjects: 1) the priority of the covenant relationship in the salvation of God’s people, which requires that we understand “calling” to precede “regeneration” in the ordinary sequence of the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis); 2) the special circumstance of the election and salvation of children of believing parents who die as infants, which requires that we recognize that regeneration may sometimes occur without the ordinary use of the “means of grace”; 3) the relation between the baptism of covenant children and their regeneration; and 4) the propriety of preaching to covenant members in a way that summons them to conversion and self-examination.
Calling Ordinarily Precedes Regeneration
The first occasion for Bavinck to comment on covenant and election in Saved by Grace arises in connection with his consideration of the historic Reformed view of the covenant of grace and the church. Reformed theologians have traditionally placed “calling” before “regeneration” in the “order of salvation” because this best conforms to the nature of the covenant and its obligations. In the Reformed understanding of the covenant, the children of believing parents receive the means of grace, the Word and sacrament, upon the basis of their gracious inclusion within the church. Though the sacrament of baptism is not the basis for membership in the covenant community, it is an important attestation of such membership. Consequently, while the baptism of the children of believers visibly signifies and seals their incorporation into the covenant of grace, Reformed theologians never viewed the sacrament to be “absolutely necessary to salvation.” The grace of the Holy Spirit can and may be communicated to such children, even when they may not have received the sacrament of baptism. However, in order to confirm that God is pleased to embrace the children of believers within the covenant, they receive the sign and seal of this covenant in baptism and are placed thereby under the obligation to respond in the way of faith and obedience to the covenant promise. In Bavinck’s words,
God is so good that in His electing and in the dispensing of His grace, He follows the line of generations and receives into His covenant both parents and their seed together. So the children of believers are to be viewed as holy, not by nature but through the benefit of the covenant of grace, in which they together with their parents are included according to God’s arrangement. (SG 68)
Therefore, in the ordinary communication of God’s grace in Christ, the covenant of grace with its appointed means of Word and sacraments is the instrument through which God is pleased to save his people. Because the covenant obliges believers and their children to respond in faith to the means of grace, including the sacrament of baptism, Reformed theologians have historically insisted that the calling of the gospel normally precedes regeneration. All members of the covenant community are summoned through the Word and sacraments to believe the gospel promise and to walk in obedience before God.
While Bavinck argues that the covenant in its administration requires that calling ordinarily precedes regeneration in the order of salvation, he also observes that regeneration, which in its narrow sense is a work of the Holy Spirit alone, is absolutely necessary in order to enable members of the covenant community to respond appropriately in the way of faith and repentance. No member of the covenant community could respond to the gospel summons in the way of faith unless God graciously grants what the Word and sacrament require. This indisputable truth is of particular significance to the question of the relation between election and covenant. According to Bavinck, we must recognize that God’s purpose of election is realized by means of the administration of the covenant, and that this purpose is inseparably joined to the covenantal means that God has appointed. Though not all who are placed under the administration of the covenant of grace are ultimately saved, God does grant his grace in the way of the covenant.
Faith is not a condition unto the covenant, but a condition within the covenant: the route to be followed in order to become partaker and to enjoy all the commodities of that covenant. Yet faith itself is already a fruit, a benefit of the covenant, a gift of God’s grace and thus a proof that God has received us in His covenant. For God bestows all the gifts of His grace in and along the pathway of the covenant. (SG 76–77)
In this statement, which is illustrative of Bavinck’s view of the close, yet distinct, nature of election and covenant, Bavinck seeks to affirm the way God realizes his saving purpose through the administration of the covenant of grace. In the administration of the covenant, a relationship is established between God and believers together with their children. Only in the way of the covenant, which requires faith and obedience, does God grant salvation in Christ to his people. However, the doctrine of election must always be invoked in order to give a Scriptural account of the way salvation in the covenant is entirely God’s work of grace from beginning to completion.
The Election and Salvation of Covenant Infants
The second occasion for broaching the subject of election and covenant in Saved by Grace is of particular significance. In the history of Reformed theology, special attention has been devoted to the difficult pastoral and theological question of the election and salvation of the children of believing parents whom God calls out of this life in their infancy. In the Canons of Dort, a specific article is devoted to this question (I/17), which declares that the “godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation” of such children. In his comments on this subject, Bavinck observes that the “uniform confession” of the Reformed churches affirms the salvation and election of the children of believing parents who die in their infancy. However, he also adds that there were two opinions regarding the significance of this confession.
Some theologians, noting that not all the children who come under the administration of the covenant are elect children, stopped short of expressly declaring “with full certainty that all covenant children dying in infancy belonged without exception to the elect.” Others adopted what Bavinck terms a “broader position.” In this position, such children should be viewed strictly in terms of the promise of the covenant and on this basis as having been received by God in grace and “become a partaker of salvation at death.” Because such children were incapable of violating the covenant or rejecting its promise, they should be regarded as elect children who are the objects of God’s saving purpose in Christ. In his comments on this second approach, it becomes apparent that it is the one Bavinck prefers. However, Bavinck notes that the statement of this confession in the Canons of Dort is presented in a “subjective” or pastoral manner, encouraging parents not to doubt the election and salvation of their children. Furthermore, the confession does not speak abstractly, but aims to encourage “godly parents” who may be tempted to doubt God’s grace toward their children in a circumstance of special distress.
In these comments on the Reformed confession, Bavinck clearly distinguishes between election and covenant, observing that some who are embraced within the covenant may not be elect in the strict sense, since they forfeit the covenant’s blessings through unbelief and impenitence. At the same time, Bavinck underscores the intimate link between election and covenant, when he embraces the historic Reformed view regarding the election of the children of godly parents who die in their infancy. Though Bavinck distinguishes election and covenant, he also seeks to hold them together in the most intimate unity.
Baptism and Regeneration
The relevant comments on election and covenant that we have considered thus far are of direct importance to one of the principal issues Bavinck addresses in Saved by Grace, namely, the relation between the baptism of children of believing parents and their regeneration. We have already observed that Bavinck appeals in this work to the doctrine of the covenant in order to support the traditional order between calling and regeneration in the salvation of believers. Since the covenant is the ordinary instrument whereby God achieves his saving purpose, the means of grace consist of the Word and sacraments, each of which obliges its recipients to respond in the way of faith and repentance. Though no one is able to believe or repent without the grace of regeneration, ordinarily the call of the covenant comes before the work of regeneration. Furthermore, in his reflection on the election and salvation of the infant children of godly parents who die before they are capable of responding to the call of the gospel, Bavinck defends the traditional view that such children are regenerated without the use of the ordinary means of grace. Though the regeneration of those who are saved ordinarily takes place within the covenant through the use of the Word and sacraments, the unusual circumstance of such children reminds us that regeneration is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit and there is a place for speaking of an “immediate” regeneration. In Bavinck’s handling of these subjects, he clearly affirms that regeneration may occur prior to, and even in the case of elect infants, apart from the ordinary use of the means of grace. The distinction between “immediate” and “mediate” regeneration, accordingly, is a necessary one, and has been commonly employed by Reformed theologians. Though this distinction may be abused in a way that inappropriately separates regeneration from the Spirit’s use of the means of grace, it is necessary to preserve the exclusive role of the Spirit in authoring the new birth.
Though Bavinck recognizes the need to speak of “immediate” regeneration in the case of the elect infants of believing parents and in order to preserve the Spirit’s exclusive role in authoring the new birth, he is very circumspect in his analysis of the relation between regeneration and the baptism of the children of believers. In the history of Reformed theology, many theologians regarded regeneration to occur before or even at the time of the baptism of such children. They did so upon the basis of their understanding of the covenant promise that baptism confirms, and the close link between the covenant and God’s purpose of election. When God promises to grant salvation in Christ to those with whom he covenants (believers and their children), we may be confident that the children of believers possess the grace that the sacrament signifies and seals. In the older tradition of Reformed theology, accordingly, it was common for Reformed theologians to draw this inference from the baptism of the children of the covenant (RD 4:511; SG 85ff.).
In his consideration of this question, Bavinck offers a number of observations regarding how we should view the relation between the baptism of covenant children and the question of their regeneration. First, Bavinck concurs with the historic consensus of Reformed theology that baptism, though a sacrament that attests the need for and reality of regeneration by the Spirit of Christ, does not effect regeneration. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration fails to distinguish between the work of the Spirit in regeneration and the use of the sacraments as a visible confirmation of the gospel promise. It also ascribes to the sacrament an intrinsic power that it does not possess, and that is contradicted by the fact that some baptized persons do not (at or subsequent to their baptism) embrace the covenant promise in the way of faith and repentance. Second, Bavinck argues against the tendency of some of his contemporaries to imply that the ground for the baptism of such children is their “presumed regeneration.” According to Bavinck, we do not baptize the children of believing parents on any other ground than the command of God, who stipulates that such children are members of the covenant and therefore ought to be baptized (SG 91). And third, Bavinck mildly criticizes Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis upon the “assumed regeneration” of such children. Not only is such an assumption an uncertain basis for the baptism of the children of believers, but it is also one that may encourage speculation about such children that desires “to know more than God has revealed in His Word” (SG 91). Since we do not know whether within the freedom of God the regeneration of such children precedes, accompanies, or follows their baptism (SG 91), we should exercise caution in regard to the assumptions that we make respecting them. What we do know regarding these children is that they are included with the covenant of grace, that they should accordingly receive the sign and seal of their inclusion in baptism, that they are called to respond to God’s gracious promise in the way of faith and obedience, and that God graciously works by the Spirit of regeneration to enable them to respond appropriately. Though we have good reason to be confident that God will grant regeneration to such baptized children, and though we may not unduly separate baptism and regeneration for this reason, we should avoid the temptation to speculate on this subject or say more than we are warranted to say on the basis of Scriptural teaching.4
The Propriety of the Call to Conversion and Self-Examination
In the course of his reflection on the relation between baptism and regeneration in Saved by Grace, Bavinck critically evaluates two problematic views that were expressed by his contemporaries. In Bavinck’s assessment, each of these views was one-sided and tended to encourage a lack of balance in the way the preaching of the gospel was carried on within the context of the administration of the covenant of grace.5 On the one hand, some theologians so emphasized the assumed regeneration of all baptized members of the covenant community that they undermined the legitimate call to conversion and self-examination that is issued through the preaching of the gospel. In this view, the preaching of the call to conversion, if it is urgently pressed upon the children of believing parents, may tend to suggest that the regeneration and salvation of such children are in doubt until and unless they respond properly to the gospel call (SG 90–94). On the other hand, some theologians so separated the administration of the covenant and the sacrament of baptism from the reality of the work of the Spirit in regeneration that they undermined the legitimate confidence that believers may have in the promises of the covenant to them and their children. Rather than presume the salvation and regeneration of the children of believing parents, this view tends to presume the non-salvation and non-regeneration of such children until evidence of the work of God’s grace in their lives is forthcoming. At the risk of considerable simplification, the first of these views proceeds in preaching from the standpoint of the “presumed regeneration” of all baptized members of the covenant; the second of these views proceeds from the standpoint of the “presumed non-regeneration” of such members. In the first view, the circle of the covenant is virtually identified with the circle of election. In the second view, the circle of election tends to be viewed as a relatively small one within the much broader circle of the covenant in terms of its historical manifestation. According to Bavinck’s argument in Saved by Grace, neither of these two views does justice to the relation between election and covenant.
In evaluating the first of these views, Bavinck maintains that it fails to distinguish adequately the sacrament of baptism, which by God’s command is to be administered to all the children of believers, and the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, which we know from Scripture and experience is not granted to all such children (SG 117–18). This first approach also fails to reckon seriously with the fact that some baptized members of the covenant community do not respond in the way of faith and obedience to the covenant’s promises and obligations. Due to the important distinction between the covenant and election, we may not assume that all members of the covenant in its historical administration are elect and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Corresponding to the nature of the covenant in distinction from divine election, there remains a place in the preaching of the gospel, even when it addresses those who are members of the covenant, to emphasize the urgent need for true conversion.
Furthermore, since it is possible for baptized members of the covenant community to fail to respond in the way of faith and repentance to the overtures of the gospel, the preaching of the Word should include a call to “self-examination” on the part of those who are embraced within the covenant (SG 126–27). Because the circles of election and of the gathered community of the church do not perfectly coincide, it is always legitimate, even within the context of the covenant people of God, to call all members of the covenant to true conversion in the way of genuine faith and repentance. Likewise, it remains legitimate, even pastorally obligatory, to warn the members of the covenant community, professing adults and baptized children alike, to examine themselves to see whether they are truly in the faith and possess the grace promised in the gospel (SG 117–18). The proper administration of the covenant of grace leaves no room for any kind of complacency or easy presumption that all members of the covenant community are regenerated and truly saved through faith in Christ.
While for these reasons Bavinck demurs from an exaggerated emphasis upon the close connection, even identity, between election and covenant (presumed regeneration), he also cautions against the kind of pietism that approaches all the baptized children of believers as though they were unregenerate unless we see evidences of true conversion in them. Undoubtedly it is permissible, even necessary, to address all members of the covenant community with the earnest summons to faith and repentance. However, Bavinck cautions against the “pietistic” tendency to separate baptism and regeneration in such a way that the non-regeneration of baptized children is virtually assumed until evidence to the contrary is forthcoming. Since there is an intimate connection between God’s purpose of election and his bestowal of the grace of Christ through the instrumentality of the covenant, we ought to regard baptized children to be regenerate as a kind of “judgment of charity” (RD 4:511). Although it is undeniable that the visible community of the church, which includes all professing believers and their children, includes some who are not elect or genuinely saved, we should nonetheless address the people of God from the standpoint of the covenant promise and regard them to consist of “God’s beloved, God’s elect, called to be saints, believers . . .”(SG 117).
In my next, concluding article on Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant, I will have the occasion to identify some of the key features of his view, especially on the difficult question of the relation between covenant and election. What should be evident at this point is the careful and balanced way Bavinck addresses a number of questions of a pastoral and theological nature that troubled the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in his day. Since many of these questions continue to be disputed among Reformed churches in North America, Bavinck’s handling of these questions continues to represent a fine example of how they may be addressed in the interest of greater church unity.
At almost every point in his discussion of the debates in the Netherlands, Bavinck steers a steady and moderate course between the more extreme views of some of his contemporaries. Though Bavinck doesn’t identify covenant and election, he understands the close and intimate interrelation between them. The triune God, who elects to save his people through the work of Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit, works out his saving purposes in the way of the covenant and in the line of the generations. Therefore, believers may have a good confidence that God who covenants with them and their children, and who signifies and seals the promises of the covenant in baptism, is a faithful God who will do what he has promised. Through the means of grace, the preaching of the Word and the faithful administration of the sacrament, God works and confirms faith in the gospel promise. At the same time, Bavinck is keenly aware of the danger of a kind of “presumptuousness” regarding the regeneration and salvation of all members of the covenant community. In his contribution to the debates in the Netherlands, Bavinck refused to side either with those who identified covenant and election or with those who drove a wedge between them. On the one hand, Bavinck encouraged believers to trust the promises of the covenant, together with the confirmation of these promises through the right use of the sacraments. On the other hand, Bavinck warned against a simple identification of covenant and election, particularly when it encouraged a false presumption about the regeneration and salvation of those who are baptized. In doing so, Bavinck avoided the more extreme views of some of his contemporaries.
What is remarkable about Bavinck’s contribution to the controversies in the Reformed churches of his day is his unusual combination of theological acumen, pastoral sensitivity, and a commitment to the reconciliation of different emphases within the framework of a solid commitment to the Reformed confessions. In these respects, Bavinck remains an outstanding example for the Reformed churches in North America, especially when they may be faced with similar disputed questions.
1. Trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman, ed. with intro. By J. Mark Beach (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008). Hereafter referred to as SG.
2. For a sketch of this approach and its proponents, see J. Mark Beach, “Introductory Essay,” in SG, pp. xxvii−xxxvi. Though proponents of this approach, especially Kuyper, were often interpreted to teach either a doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” or the baptism of the children of believers upon the basis of their “assumed regeneration” (in the Dutch: veronderstelde wedergeboorte), this is not necessarily the case. What this approach encouraged is a strong confidence that the grace of Christ, which is signified and sealed to the children of the covenant in baptism, properly belongs to such children unless they should grow up to show themselves to be unbelieving. It also emphasized the “unconditionality” of the covenant promise, since this promise properly belongs only to the elect. Though it is often alleged to be his view, Kuyper himself finally rejected the notion that baptism either regenerates or is grounded upon the assumption of the regeneration of its recipients. In North American Reformed church history, this approach, with its tendency to view the covenant strictly in terms of the doctrine of election, has been taken in a more radical direction by the Protestant Reformed Churches.
3. In the history of North American Reformed churches, this approach and its tendency to view the covenant strictly in terms of its historical administration is best represented by the Canadian Reformed Churches, and to some extent by the Free Reformed Churches. Among the diverse applications of this approach, some churches emphasize more the “objective” promise of the covenant, while others emphasize more the “subjective” response that this promise demands. Those who tend to emphasize the “subjective experience” of God’s grace often move in the direction of what might be termed a “presumptive non-regeneration” view. Until those who are baptized “evidence” the work of the Spirit in true conversion, they are regarded as non-regenerate persons. This tendency is historically represented by the Netherland Reformed Churches.
4. Cf. Reformed Dogmatics, 4:511, where Bavinck notes that there was an historical occasion for the hesitation among Reformed theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially those influenced by “pietism,” to link closely baptism and regeneration. With the “neglect of discipline” in this period (cf. “nominal” Christianity), it became more problematic to affirm very confidently the “unity of election and covenant” or the link between regeneration and baptism. This perceptive observation on Bavinck’s part illustrates the close interplay between historical context and theological formulation.
5. Bavinck identifies a kind of “Methodistic” or pietistic preaching that does not proceed upon the basis of the covenant in addressing the covenant community (including children), and a kind of overly-presumptive preaching that proceeds from the assumed regeneration of the covenant community and its members. See Saved by Grace, pp. 119–28.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.