An Introduction to Henry Danhof's "The Idea of the Covenant of Grace"

David J. Engelsma

With the next issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, I will begin publishing my translation of Henry Danhof's printed lecture, "The Idea of the Covenant of Grace."1 There will likely be three installments. In this issue, I introduce Danhof's booklet - and Danhof - to the readers of this Journal.

Henry Danhof, at the time a minister in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), gave the lecture at a conference of Christian Reformed ministers in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1919. Evidently, the conference of ministers was held in connection with a meeting of a Grand Rapids classis of the CRC.2 Danhof was a substitute for the scheduled speaker, Rev. Johannes Groen, who was sick. From Danhof the ministers heard quite a different speech than they would have heard from Groen.

Controversial Lecture

As the title indicates, Danhof's address was a penetrating study of the fundamental idea of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace. At the same time, and as an aspect of the idea of the covenant of grace, the lecture investigated the relationship between the church and the world. This led the speaker to consider and pass judgment on the apparent good done by the ungodly.

The speech was controversial.

In response to Danhof's rejection of the popular notion that the life of unregenerated mankind is "full of all kinds of virtues," a Christian Reformed minister put the question to Danhof, how we then must view the marriage of two unbelievers. Danhof's response is reported to have been that "the marriage between two non-Christians can be nothing other than bestiality and the kind of love which devils have for each other."3

This response with its condemnation of all the apparently noble deeds of the pagans infuriated Rev. Jan Karel Van Baalen, as well, undoubtedly, as the other Christian Reformed ministers who shared Van Baalen's esteem for the "good" in the unholy world. Three years later, in a polemical work against Danhof and Herman Hoeksema concerning the doctrine of common grace, Van Baalen recalled Danhof's statement with not one but two exclamation marks and called it "nonsense."

At the end of this polemical work, De Loochening der Gemeene Gratie: Gereformeerd of Doopersch? (The Denial of Common Grace: Reformed or Anabaptist?), Van Baalen put several questions to Danhof and Hoeksema. He intended these questions to expose their false doctrine. The very first was how Danhof viewed the marriage of Hector and Andromache: "May we ask Rev. Danhof whether he will be so good as to make clear to us what there is in the love between Hector and his wife, as sung by Homer, that is devilish or bestial?"4

Historically Significant Address

Danhof's speech, delivered, it must be remembered, to an influential group of Christian Reformed ministers, was significant in the history of the CRC. Danhof gave the speech in 1919 when the CRC was in the throes of a struggle which would fundamentally determine the future of that Reformed denomination. The issue in that struggle was the relationship between the CRC and the world of the ungodly. Danhof and Hoeksema contended for the spiritual separation of the church from the world. The theological term that expressed this separation and warfare was "antithesis."

Another group, among whom was Jan Karel Van Baalen, fought as vehemently for the church's openness to the world - accommodation; cooperation; and reception, within limits, of course. The deceptive watchword of this party was "Americanization." The word was deceptive because that which this party sought was not conformity to the innocent ways of America - language and clothes - but conformity to the corrupt ways of the world: the higher critical doctrines regarding the Holy Scriptures of European unbelief, as well as other distinctly un-Reformed teachings; the principles and practices of the ungodly labor unions; fellowship with the works of darkness in worldly amusements.5

The doctrine by which the church would relate positively to the world was Abraham Kuyper's and, especially, Herman Bavinck's doctrine of common grace.

The first ecclesiastical skirmish in this war was the synodical condemnation in 1922 of seminary professor Ralph Janssen's views on the Bible as modernism.6 The apparent triumph of the antithetical position was misleading and short-lived. For a scant two years later the decisive battle was fought on the Christian Reformed synod of Kalamazoo, Michigan. By its adoption of the "Three Points of Common Grace," the CRC destroyed the antithesis in that church and established openness to the world as its official policy. In this decision, the synod was reacting, in part, against the well-remembered address by Henry Danhof, "The Idea of the Covenant of Grace."7

Danhof's lecture has also been significant for the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). These are the churches that came into existence as a separate denomination as the result of the CRC's rejection of the antithesis in 1924 and discipline, in 1925, of officebearers who opposed the doctrine of common grace. In his lecture, Danhof developed the reality of the covenant of grace as fellowship that has become central to the theology and practice of the PRC. Some have suggested that Danhof's conception of the covenant was formative of Protestant Reformed covenant theology.

Profound Statement of the Covenant

Apart from its historical significance, Danhof's treatise on the covenant is important in its own right as a unique, profound, thorough statement of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant. For Danhof, the covenant of grace is central in the life of the believer: "The idea of the covenant of grace concerns the deepest and most intimate relation between God and man. The real covenant-relation governs every other relation."

The relationship with God that is the covenant consists of friendship: "The covenant causes God and man to live together as friends. In this the covenant-idea is completely realized" (Dutch: "komt ... ten volle tot haar recht").

The ultimate origin of the covenant as a relationship of friendship is the triune life of God.

The covenant rests in the holy Trinity. God is the God of the covenant. He is such, not merely according to the counsel of His will in His relation to the creature but first of all in Himself, by virtue of His own nature. The "inner life of God" is a covenant of friendship among Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.... The absolute covenant-idea lies hidden in the family life of the holy Trinity.

At its core, the history of revelation is the development of the covenant of grace. "The beginning of the realization of the covenant-idea we find already in the earthly paradise. The relationship between God and man was one of friendship already in the state of rectitude." Man's fall did not annul the covenant of God.

God wills the covenant. Therefore, according to God's good pleasure, Christ, God's Companion, stood behind Adam when he became apostate and in Him the Lord's covenant of friendship with man was firmly established. God realizes His covenant of friendship with man by grace in Christ . . . so that he becomes God's covenant companion and friend everlastingly.

The present history of the world centers in the covenant of God with His people in Christ. "According to God's decree, all things work together for the realization of this idea of the covenant of grace.... The history of all things is the development of the covenant of friendship of our God."

In connection with the development of the covenant in history, Danhof proposes and expands on what he calls the "organic connection of our race." This organic connection of the race is the means "for the realization of His covenant. That realization everywhere follows the organic lines.... God created man organic and in organic connection."

The conceptions of an "organic connection" of all people and of "organic development" were of great importance to Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema in the common grace struggle of the early 1920s. In their Van Zonde en Genade (Of Sin and Grace), Danhof and Hoeksema explained the development of sin in terms of the organic connection of the human race: "All human individuals, in their organic solidarity, have communion in the root-sin of their organic head...."8

This emphasis on the "organic" so exasperated their antagonist, Jan Karel Van Baalen, that he angrily charged that all that Danhof and Hoeksema did was chant, "organic, ORGANIC, ORGANIC": "Yes indeed. But calling out, 'organic, ORGANIC, ORGANIC'!! is not the same as an explanation how we must conceive that organic development (of sin - DJE)."9

Within the organic, natural solidarity of the elect church and the reprobate world, God's regenerating Spirit creates and maintains the "absolute antithesis" between them. This is an essential element in Danhof's treatise on the covenant. "The idea of the 'absolute antithesis' must, in my view, be placed prominently on the foreground in our world-view." Antithesis is an aspect of the covenant inasmuch as "also in practice must the covenant idea always determine our relation to everything that surrounds us, but especially in relation to the world in a moral sense." As God's friends, elect believers are "of the party of the living God." As such, they cannot be friends of God's enemies, the unregenerated, ungodly world.

Danhof's study includes a knowledgeable survey of the history of the dogma of the covenant. His conclusion is that "in the dogma-historical sense, the doctrine of the covenant dates from the time of the Reformation. And it is almost exclusively a plant from Reformed soil." Nevertheless, "the covenant-idea is no Reformed fancy or subtlety, but the most beautiful fruit of the theology of the entire Christian Church."

Appropriately, Danhof concludes his masterpiece on the covenant with its eschatological implications. The antithesis will climax in the future in the persecution of the friends of Christ by the Antichrist. The greatest of all spiritual conflicts is impending. It will concern the covenant.

The enemy will turn the temporal might of the political rulers over the bodies and goods of the children of men against the friends of Christ.... Therefore we have to prepare ourselves. Also the faint-hearted among us. For the sake of the covenant of our God. There is no escape from the steel sword of our enemies.

But the covenant friend of God has hope:

Nevertheless, because it is the cause of God for which we contend, we can trust in the Lord God. He will accomplish it. His cause will triumph. And strengthened by His grace, we will not fail to obtain the crown. Redeemed from all the might of the enemy, and more than conquerors, we enter into the joy of our Lord and into the everlasting covenant of friendship of our God.

Stormy Ministry of the Author

The subsequent ministry of Henry Danhof was stormy. He and his consistory, the First CRC of Kalamazoo, Michigan, were deposed and thus put out of the CRC by Classis Grand Rapids West of the CRC in January, 1925. In 1926, Danhof and his congregation separated from those who were organizing as the PRC. For the rest of his active ministry, Danhof was pastor of the independent Protesting First CRC of Kalamazoo.10

By his ecclesiastical independency, Henry Danhof very definitely sinned against the covenant of friendship in its important manifestation as a federation of churches.

In 1945, Danhof and his congregation returned to the CRC.11

Already in 1946, Danhof came again to the attention of the synod of the CRC. With seventeen other members of the Grace CRC of Kalamazoo, Danhof protested against a decision of the consistory of the Grace church. The decision of the consistory was that Danhof and the others cease

the practice of our social group (Danhof and his supporters - DJE) of convening in one of our own private homes and entertaining one another socially, by asking and answering questions about Biblical, religious and spiritual matters.

Synod upheld the consistory, judging that

the Consistory was justified in its decision to condemn this practice in view of the following considerations: 1)The social character of these gatherings was obviously a camouflage for a Bible Study Group, comprised of dissident members, many of whom were openly critical of the doctrinal position of the Christian Reformed Church. 2) The leader of the group, the Rev. H. Danhof, had made himself guilty, by means of his public utterances, of resisting the adjustment of the Grace Church to the Christian Reformed denomination, and also of undermining the teaching of its pastor.

Synod added that if Danhof and the others would not stop this practice the consistory should "declare the membership of the protestants in the Grace Christian Reformed Church terminated."12

Evidently, Danhof's membership in the CRC was thus "terminated." For the latest Christian Reformed yearbook containing such information does not list Henry Danhof as a deceased minister of the CRC.13

This personal history may be the reason why Henry Danhof never fulfilled the promise that he showed in "The Idea of the Covenant of Grace." With the exception of several booklets and one book that he co-authored with Herman Hoeksema during the common grace controversy, Danhof did not publish after his "Idea of the Covenant of Grace."14 What writing he did seems to have taken the form of filling the Sunday bulletins of the Protesting First Christian Reformed Church of Kalamazoo with his thoughts on various theological, philosophical, and ecclesiastical subjects.15

Danhof failed to carry out what he proposed in his lecture on the covenant. In the "Foreword," having noted the breadth of his subject, he declared, "I hope, the Lord willing, to devote my powers to related subjects in the future. We must preserve that which we possess by adding to that which has been obtained."

This duty has fallen to the ministers in the PRC.

I will take the liberty in my translation to shorten some of Danhof's long paragraphs. In other respects, the translation that follows is intended to be faithful to the original words of Henry Danhof.


  1. H. Danhof, De Idee van het Genadeverbond (Grand Rapids: Van Noord Book and Publishing Company, 1920). The booklet is 42 pages. To my knowledge, it has never before been translated into English. []
  2. Referring to the discussion that followed Danhof's lecture, Jan Karel Van Baalen speaks of a statement made by Danhof at "a classical gathering." See Jan Karel Van Baalen, De Loochening der Gemeene Gratie: Gereformeerd of Doopersch? (The Denial of Common Grace: Reformed or Anabaptist?) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co., 1922), p. 47. James D. Bratt says that Danhof made the remark to which Van Baalen refers "in the question-and-answer session at the classical meeting after delivering 'De Idee van het Genadeverbond.'" See James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 265. []
  3. Van Baalen, Loochening, p. 47; cf. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism, pp. 111, 265. []
  4. Van Baalen, Loochening, p. 87. Van Baalen quoted the touching conversation between Hector and Andromache from Book 6 of Homer's The Iliad. Danhof's "bestial" and "devilish" was strong language. But Van Baalen's indignation at this strong language should not obscure the fact that the issue was whether the love between Hector and Andromache is sinful. If it is sinful - only sinful - it is devilish, for sin originates in the devil. If it is sinful - only sinful - it is worse than bestial, for beasts cannot sin in their mating. That the love of Hector and Andromache is sinful, the passage itself from which Van Baalen took his quotation makes plain. The immediate context of Hector and Andromache's expressions of love for each other is Hector's advice to the women of Troy to worship the goddess Athena ("Queen Athena, goddess divine, savior of our city!"); Hector's affirmation that his burning desire is his own glory ("to win credit for my father and myself"); and Hector's prayer to all the gods that his son will bring glory to himself and to his father ("O Zeus and all ye heavenly gods!"). See Homer's The Iliad, tr. W. H. D. Rouse, Mentor Book (New York: The New American Library, 1950), pp. 74-83.

    Everything that issues from such an idolatrous, self-seeking heart is sin, including marital and family life. The Heidelberg Catechism passes judgment upon the love of Hector and Andromache that it is sin: "But what are good works? Only those which proceed from a true faith and are performed ... to His glory ..." (Q. 91). Romans 1:18ff. condemns the life of such pagans as Hector and Andromache: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness."

    For all the vigor of his terminology, therefore, Danhof was only pronouncing the biblical, Reformed judgment upon Hector and Andromache.

    Why was this offensive to Van Baalen? Why could he be fulsome in his praise of Zeus-worshiping Hector and violent in his condemnation of Henry Danhof, who worshiped the true God? How, two years later, could Van Baalen and the entire Christian Reformed synod expel Danhof from their fellowship as a deposed minister, while keeping Hector and Andromache in good repute within the church? Already in the early 1920s there was a diseased love of pagan culture in the CRC. This did not bode well for its future. []

  5. For a helpful (and highly readable!) analysis of this critically important struggle in the 1920s for the soul and future of the CRC, see Bratt, Dutch Calvinism, pp. 93-119. These two chapters are titled, "Forming the Battle Lines, 1919-1920" and "The Resolution, 1921-1928." Bratt characterizes Danhof and Hoeksema as the "Antitheticals." The party of friendly relations with the world he describes as "positive Calvinists," a description that may tip Bratt's own hand. Hoeksema called this party "the latitudinarian party in the churches, a group of men . . . who opposed the antithesis, stood for a 'broader' view of the Christian's life and calling in the world, and strove to bridge the gap between the world and the Church" (The Protestant Reformed Churches in America: Their Origin, Early History and Doctrine, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, 1947, pp. 15, 16). The "positive Calvinists" attacked "otherworldliness ... and a disregard for God's general grace and revelation" and advocated the church's fulfillment of its "cultural mandate." Such "positive Calvinists" supposed, no doubt sincerely, that the CRC was called to solve the world's problems. As though this were a real possibility! But this, he said, cannot be done "if only men think like the Reformed."

    One may disagree with Bratt's conclusion that, although the "Antitheticals" went down to defeat in the common grace decision of 1924, the "progressive Calvinists" also "came to grief." The decision of the CRC on common grace spelled the victory of the "progressive Calvinists." In time, Hoeksema's prophecy that common grace, "nothing other than the theory for conformity to the world," would "bring a real tidal wave of worldliness over the churches" was sure to be fulfilled. The compromising "Confessionalist/Pietist" party (to use Bratt's label), who gave the victory to the "progressive Calvinists" and who exercised church power for the next 25 years, merely delayed the full manifestation of the victory of the "progressive Calvinists" in 1924. In terms of Hoeksema's figure of the "tidal wave," the Louis Berkhofs and H. J. Kuipers spent the next 25 years sticking their fingers in various holes that the adoption of common grace had opened up in the Christian Reformed dike. In the early 1950s, the dike itself began to collapse.

    Hoeksema's analysis of the leading figures in Bratt's "Confessionalist/Pietist" party - L. Berkhof, S. Volbeda, Y. P. De Jong, and H. J. Kuiper--is found in The Protestant Reformed Churches, pp. 16-26. About this treatment, Bratt remarks that Hoeksema "has especially good insight into the instincts and vacillations of the Confessionalist party" (Dutch Calvinism, p. 266). []

  6. On the history of the "Janssen case" in the CRC and its relation to the assault on Herman Hoeksema by the advocates of common grace, see Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches, pp. 17-26. For an indepth study of the relationship between the views of Ralph Janssen and the doctrine of common grace, see the unpublished master's thesis of Herman Hanko, "A Study of the Relation between the Views of Prof. R. Janssen and Common Grace" (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1988). Copies of this thesis are available from the bookstore of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary. []
  7. For the history of this "common grace" controversy, see Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches, pp. 11-290; on the doctrinal issues of the controversy, see pp. 293-410. []
  8. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, Van Zonde en Genade (Kalamazoo, MI: Dalm Printing Co., n.d.), p. 202. []
  9. Jan Karel Van Baalen, Nieuwigheid en Dwaling: De Loochening der Gemeene Gratie (Innovation and Error: The Denial of Common Grace) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co., 1923), pp. 63, 64; cf. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism, p. 111. Bratt too has difficulty with the "Antitheticals"'use of "organic": "It is difficult to interpret their obsession with the point because they put it to so many different uses...." Perhaps. But one thing is certainly clear from this "obsession": long before it was theologically fashionable to do so, the fathers of the Reformed theology held in the PRC insisted on the natural solidarity of the human race, specifically of the elect people of God with the reprobate ungodly. Indeed, they stressed that the church lives in natural solidarity with the entire created world. At the very foundation of this theology, therefore, is rejection of anabaptistic world-flight. The antithesis does not, indeed cannot, mean physical separation from unbelievers or ascetic withdrawal from the creation and its ordinances. []
  10. This sad history is related in Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches, pp. 268-287. []
  11. See the "Acts of Synod 1946 of the CRC," Art. 88: "A statement of the Stated Clerk of Classis Kalamazoo informing Synod 'that the union between the Protesting First Christian Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed denomination had been accomplished on November 1, 1945, on the basis approved by Classis at its February 21, 1945, meeting in agreement with the advice of the Synodical examiners of Classes Zeeland, Holland and Grand Rapids South.'" []
  12. See the "Acts of Synod 1948 of the CRC," Art. 114, pp. 71-74. []
  13. The "Acts of Synod 1985 of the CRC." []
  14. The three booklets are "Niet Doopersch maar Gereformeerd: Voorloopig Bescheid aan Ds. Jan Karel Van Baalen betreffende de Loochening der Gemeene Gratie" ("Not Anabaptistic but Reformed: A Provisional Answer to Rev. Jan Karel Van Baalen concerning the Denial of Common Grace") (Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Printing Co., n.d.); "Langs Zuivere Banen: een Wederwoord aan Bezwaarde Broederen" ("Along Straight Paths: A Reply to Aggrieved Brothers") (Kalamazoo, MI: Dalm Printing Co., n.d.); and "Om Recht en Waarheid: een Woord van Toelichting en Leiding" ("For the Sake of Justice and Truth: A Word of Explanation and Direction") (Kalamazoo, MI: Dalm Printing Co., n.d.). The book is Van Zonde en Genade (Of Sin and Grace) (Kalamazoo, MI: Dalm Printing Co., n.d.). []
  15. These must rank as the strangest church bulletins in the history of the Reformed churches, perhaps, in the history of Protestantism. There is almost nothing in them of congregational events and church news. Front and back, the four pages of the typical bulletin are crammed with Danhof's exposition and comment on all kinds of topics. Take the bulletin of Sunday, March 8, 1931 as an example. Page 1 (the front cover of the bulletin!) is devoted to "Some Unsolved Problems of Philosophy"; page 2 is full of a treatment of "Het Overblijfsel Behouden" ("The Remnant Preserved"); page 3, from top to bottom, explains "De Proloog van Johannes" ("The Prologue of John"); and more than two thirds of page 4, the back of the bulletin, sets forth a "Brief Exposition of Our Doctrine." Less than one third of the back cover is permitted to contain all of the church news for the week under the heading, "Meetings." In the midst of the listing of meetings, and under that heading, appears the line, lost in the welter of philosophy, theology, and meetings, "Born to Mr. and Mrs. P. Van den Berg, Jr., a son." Let a pastor try this with the church bulletin today! A complete set of these bulletins is held in the library of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary. One who would learn something of Danhof's theological development after 1926 must peruse these bulletins, although occasionally a printed sermon or set of sermons would appear as an "appendix" to certain bulletins. Some of these printed sermons are available. []

For published materials on The Covenant of Grace, please click here. -