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Conferences

Review of 2006 BRF Family Conference

Manuel Kuhs

The 9th Biennial BRF Family Conference was held from August 5 to August 12, 2006. The venue this year was Cloverley Hall Conference Centre, located between Whitchurch and Market Drayton in the heart of the beautiful Shropshire countryside in western England. The Victorian building had originally been the servants’ quarters for the lord and lady of the manor, before becoming a Boarding School and now a conference centre.

Almost one hundred people attended the conference, and, like previous BRF conferences, this year’s was truly international. There were representatives from all parts of the UK, from the Netherlands, France, Brazil and the USA. The speakers were once again Prof. Herman C. Hanko, Professor Emeritus of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America, and Prof. David J. Engelsma, Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The subject of the conference was "The Five Points of Calvinism," and the scene was set on the Lord’s Day with a fine sermon by Prof. Hanko on Ephesians 2: 8- 9. This text is what the Five Points are all about, and in that sense it was a good theme text for our conference. Also, by way of introduction, a special lecture on "The History of the Synod of Dordt" was given by Dr. Aza Goudriaan. Dr. Goudriaan, a student of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, is researching the use of classical philosophy by the Arminians at and before the time of Dordt. We learned from this the Synod’s importance for the Reformed churches, not only in providing us with the Canons, but also in that it confirmed the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

The conference proper began on Tuesday morning with Prof. Hanko addressing us on "The History of Calvinism." In a grand sweep of the history of the New Testament church from Augustine to the present day, we saw how the doctrines of sovereign grace have only briefly held sway in the church. These doctrines have always been under attack, and the attack has come in various guises: the semi-pelagianism of Rome; the heresy of Bolsec in Calvin’s day; Arminianism; Amyrauldianism and the Marrowmen; and more recently common grace and the well-meant offer. The great issue for the church is always the sovereignty of God in salvation, and it’s on that front that we must do battle today!

The Five Points are usually set out in the familiar acrostic TULIP. However, our speakers dealt with them in line with the order of the Synod of Dordt. This meant we began with sovereign predestination. Prof. Engelsma stated the fundamental importance of the Five Points to the gospel. They are not incidental to salvation. They set out the only way men can be saved. Therefore, they must be preached, and not to preach them is not to preach the gospel. We then saw how the doctrine of sovereign predestination was fundamental to Calvin’s theology and that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have made it creedal. Predestination is not, however, only Calvin’s and the confessions’ teaching, it is also the teaching of Jesus. In John 6:37, Jesus taught that a certain number of individuals were given to Him in eternity. In love the Father gave these people to His Son with the purpose that they wouldn’t be cast out for their sins. A necessary implication of this text is that God rejects some men – they are not given to Jesus in eternity. This is the doctrine of reprobation, and to deny it is to deny also election. Prof. Engelsma also pointed out, crucially, that all Jesus’ work has its ground in election. Especially our coming to Him is due to election. We believe because we are elect: faith flows from election.

In subsequent addresses we saw how the Five Points depend on each other and that to deny one is to deny them all. A consistent theme throughout the speeches was how these doctrines comfort us. This theme was especially clear in the last speech – "Preservation of the Saints." Roman Catholics and Arminians live all their lives in the fear they may finally perish and be lost forever. This terrible fear is God’s judgment upon their false gospel. In contrast, God blesses the true gospel of sovereign grace with the glorious truth of preservation. Prof. Engelsma explained how grace is the basis of our perseverance. It is because God preserves us that we by faith actively persevere. We may and must have assurance of our perseverance. After all, Christ prayed for this in John 17:11. What a wonderful comfort to know that in spite of all our enemies, including our enemy within – our old nature – God keeps us to the end!

In keeping with the relaxed nature of the conference, we enjoyed several coach tours. On Monday one party went to Caernarfon Castle in North Wales. This is one of the most splendid castles in Britain and figures large in the history of Britain’s kings and queens. The other party went to Snowdonia (also in Wales), and the more energetic (and not necessarily younger!) hiked a good part of the way to the summit of Mount Snowdon. On Wednesday we enjoyed a day tour to the very old historic town of Chester. Chester started out as a Roman fort, and we were able to witness the continuing excavation of the ancient amphitheatre, the largest in Britain. Chester also provided another attraction of perennial fascination (for the females at least!), in that it boasts a wide variety of attractive shops.

Alongside the conference speeches, there were what might be called the "follow-ups." These, typically, were hosted by the younger people and continued well into the small hours! One of these sessions – due to the stimulus of Prof. Engelsma – discussed all seventeen articles of the Canons, Heads 3 and 4. It is very encouraging and refreshing to see Reformed youth giving themselves to such a study.

Alas, Saturday morning came all too soon. Many saints, especially from the British Isles, expressed their sorrow about having to return to their "wilderness wanderings" once again – many of them do not have sound Reformed churches to attend. Those of us who do learned to appreciate more deeply our blessings. Tentative proposals were made by the BRF Council to hold the next conference in Ireland.

Was it a success? Yes, of course! How could a week devoted to the truth of Jehovah God be anything else?