Book Review: The Reformed Baptism Form (1)

The Reformed Baptism Form: A Commentary, B. Wielenga, trans. Annemie Godbehere, ed. David J. Engelsma. Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2016, 425 pages. Reviewed by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak.

The Reformed Free Publishing Association must be commended for publishing an English translation of the valuable commentary on the Reformed baptism form by Dutch, Reformed minister Bastiaan Wielenga. The original work was a thorough examination of the Reformed baptism form used by Reformed churches in the administration of baptism. He wrote the commentary in the first decades of the twentieth century. The work long existed in only its original Dutch. Thanks to the work of the translator, editor, and publisher the English-speaking church world can now read and profit from Wielenga’s excellent commentary.

If she were alive today, I would give Annemie Godbehere my hearty thanks for applying her considerable translation skills to this book. This is Dutch theological writing that is worthy of the time and effort she expended on it. As the English poet Ben Jonson wrote, “Such bookes deserve translators of like coate, as was the genius wherewith they were wrote. And this hath met that one.”

Wielenga, a disciple of Abraham Kuyper, taught the Reformed truth of sovereign grace. Wielenga wrote for his people not for scholars. He wrote to edify the churches not to garner laurels from his colleagues. His commentary is clear and faithful in its exposition, simple and poetic in its expressions, moving in its exhortations, scholarly in its comment and controversy, and generally sound in theology. All of these come out clearly in an English translation that is both accessible to the average reader and free of Dutch idioms that frequently can jar English sensibilities and obscure the plain meaning. Because of this the book reads well, and the chapters of this substantial book fly by as one reads.

I commend the editor for his excellent work in bringing the translation to completion and seeing it through to publication. There is an obvious attention to detail that went into and must go into publishing a book, a large book, a theological work, and besides all that a translation. There is an evident concern for the reader that he be able to follow the argument. His skill with the Dutch and thorough acquaintance with the subject matter are all easily discerned.

This extensive labor by translator and editor is enhanced by the attractive hardcover, gilded lettering, sturdy binding, fine fonts, and easy layout of the book by the publisher.

The publication of this commentary comes at an important time in Reformed church history. Many Reformed churches are overrun by false covenantal theology, which is being and has been used to overthrow the gospel of saving grace and the salvation of many. That covenantal theology at its essence teaches that God makes his covenant with all the children of believers, elect and reprobate. Its proponents hate predestination and now have revived the old Arminian war against predestination, especially and emphatically denying that predestination must govern the covenant of grace. Besides the gross false doctrine involved in their erroneous covenantal theology, the end result of this doctrine is that the gospel truth of justification by faith alone is overthrown and the damning heresy of justification by faith and works is taught.

This commentary shows conclusively that there is only one covenantal doctrine of the Reformed baptism form, of the worthies who wrote and adopted the form, and of the churches that used it. The Reformed churches early taught this doctrine as their official doctrine of the covenant. The form is the oldest Reformed creed, and as such it carries great weight concerning the question of what covenantal doctrine is Reformed. The commentary proves that the Reformed covenantal doctrine is the doctrine that teaches that election governs the covenant and the promise of the covenant. The sovereign God of the covenant makes his covenant only with the elect children of believers. He incorporates them only into Christ Jesus so that they are sanctified in him, gives to them alone the promise of salvation in Christ, seals that promise to them by baptism, and effectually works that salvation in them until he presents them in heaven among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.

The commentary also demonstrates that this covenantal doctrine, which is the only one that harmonizes with the Reformed doctrine of salvation taught in the three forms of unity, was under constant assault from Baptists and especially from the abysmal Puritan theology that infiltrated the Dutch churches from England, especially through William Ames, Willem Teelinck, and other theologians of the nadere reformatie, whose basic and serious theological error is that assurance is not of the essence of faith. This false theology became lodged in the Dutch church world and waged constant warfare on the doctrine of the covenant taught in the baptism form, insisting always that it is Reformed and seeking to claim the distinguished Reformed pedigree of the baptism form.

The conflict became sharpest in the practical question of whether parents were to regard their children as regenerate or unregenerate. That conflict frequently masqueraded as a conflict over presupposed regeneration. The proponents of Puritan theology often accused the Reformed of the error of presupposed regeneration for teaching that the parent must raise his child as a regenerated believer and that God ordinarily regenerates the children of believers in infancy. Behind these disputes, which were cast in the form of what view of their baptized children parents ought to take, were deeply theological issues about the nature of the covenant of grace, the objects of God’s promise, and the reality of God’s saving work in the hearts of infants, who without their knowledge are received unto grace in Christ. Wielenga shows that this strange doctrine has no basis in the covenantal view of the baptism form.

The form’s covenantal doctrine is still under relentless assault today. The present-day disciples of the nadere reformatie and of the Puritans in their covenantal theology still plague the Reformed covenantal scene and still seek to latch onto the form for support and standing for their erroneous theology. In many places the covenantal view of the baptism form has been cravenly surrendered to its foes or mercilessly smothered by its enemies and replaced by a covenant of conditional promises made with elect and reprobate alike.

Perhaps this dreadful reality of the state of covenantal theology in the Reformed church world explains the astounding silence and lack of fanfare at the occasion of this significant publication, especially among the churches of NAPARC and their theologians, which have the baptism form as part of their Reformed heritage. Apparently, there is nothing to celebrate, because even Wielenga’s comparatively mild explanation of the form’s covenantal doctrine is far from the covenant doctrine of the majority of apostatizing Reformed churches and theologians. These churches have, officially in many cases, repudiated this covenantal doctrine and the creedal doctrine of grace with which it harmonizes.

...to be continued.

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Rev. Nathan Langerak is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. Rev. Langerak was asked by the RFPA to write a book review on this title.

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Book Review (Part 2)

Book Review (Part 3)

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