AN EXPLANATION by J. Parnell McCarter
A local ARP minister and full-time faculty member of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Bill VanDoodewaard, has provided his take on the Grand Rapids church scene at http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2014/04/blog-draft-for-gabe.php . Included in his discussion is the following quote:
“…within the Dutch Reformed community, not all is well. The RCA and CRC, once strong, now face bleak futures as they increasingly embrace theological error and immorality, and pressure remaining faithful ministers and congregations to do the same. Some of these pastors are among the most encouraging and appreciative of the church planting effort. The smaller stream of hyper-Calvinism, legalistic pietism, and half-way covenant church doctrine also needs a vital evangelical Reformed witness.“
Dr. VanDoodewaard does not specify which denomination(s) he is referring to by “the smaller stream”. Could it be that it has reference (at least in part) to the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC) in town? If the denomination I am a member of, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS), happened to have a congregation in town, my hunch is that many would level the same objections against it. Since I am a member of the FPCS and a regular attendee at a local NRC congregation, let me try to explain where I think these descriptive terms would be inaccurate, at least in relation to the NRC (and also the FPCS), by considering each of the three terms he uses:
1. “hyper-Calvinism” – Hyper-Calvinism is generally defined as a denial of the free offer of the gospel. It would simply not be fair to state the NRC take this “hyper-Calvinistic” stance as an official position. That was the reason for the split in 1953 in the Netherlands between the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (synodaal), and the Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland, following Dr. Steenblok in maintaining that grace is not offered to anyone besides the elect. The Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland exists in North America as the Reformed Congregations of North America, but the NRC are affiliated with the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (synodaal). The official stance of the NRC, like the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (synodaal), is in favor of the free offer of the gospel. (The FPCS also officially holds to the free offer of the gospel.)
2. “legalistic pietism” – It would be unfair to charge the NRC with “pietism” (which should not be confused with an emphasis on the importance of personal piety). As noted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietism, “though pietism shares an emphasis on personal behavior with the Puritan movement, and the two are often confused, there are important differences, particularly in the concept of the role of religion in government.” Pietism tended to diminish the role of religion in government, whereas Puritanism held it important that Biblical religion be applied to all spheres of life, including government. The early leader of the NRC, Rev. GH Kersten, was also leader of the Reformed Political Party in the Netherlands, and Rev Kersten’s perspective remains. It is simply unfair to associate pietism as commonly understood to the NRC. Ironically, while the NRC officially adheres to the Establishment Principle, it is the ARP that has officially backed away from the Establishment Principle, in its amendments to the Westminster Standards. (The FPCS also officially holds to the Establishment Principle.) Regarding legalism, this really requires an issue-by-issue Biblical analysis. One man’s so called “liberty” is another man’s “license”. I have sought at this website to defend various positions from scripture that many would accuse as “legalistic”. In any case, neither the NRC nor the FPCS believe they have the right to make up rules of conduct without scriptural foundation. Differences instead result from different views on how to apply scriptural principles to given matters.
3. “half-way covenant” – I believe this would be an inaccurate term to describe the NRC’s position. The NRC, like the FPCS, recognizes that there is one whole Covenant of Grace, and there is one whole administration of that Covenant (not one-half of either). However, that covenantal administration consists of two sacraments, each with its distinctive qualifying conditions: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The fact that there are a number of church members who are qualified for the sacrament of baptism, but are not qualified for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the ARP also recognizes there is a difference in qualifying conditions; after all, the ARP is not paedo-communionist. The fact that a portion of the church membership are baptized but not regular partakers of the Lord’s Supper is not a “half-way covenant” position at all, but simply a recognition that only some qualified for baptized membership are also qualified for the Lord’s Supper, including among the adult membership. The historic reformed confessions teach qualifying conditions of the Lord’s Supper different from baptism, such that partaking of the Lord’s Supper should not be automatic when a church member reaches a certain age.*
Hopefully there can be more discussion on these topics that will result in less misunderstanding. I realize the brief explanations above will not allay all or even most objections, but I hope it might lead to reconsideration of which terms to use in describing the objections. At the same time, there needs to be more discussion and consideration of the differences between NAPARC churches (of which the ARP church is a part) versus churches like the FPCS and NRC, as documented at http://www.puritans.net/articles/reformedchurch.htm.
*The FPCS and NRC both have adult members who are not communicants (i.e., members who have been baptized but do not regularly partake of the Lord’s Supper). One difference between the FPCS and NRC is that in the FPCS non-communicant members are not allowed to vote and hold office in the church, whereas in the NRC that is allowed. On the other hand, in the FPCS females are allowed to vote for church officers, whereas in the NRC females are not allowed to do so. In neither the FPCS nor the NRC are females allowed to hold office in the church.